Alan Parker: remembering his greatest movie achievements

Last week, we were greeted with the sad news of the death of Alan Parker. One of the UK's pre-eminent film directors, Parker's ability to leap between genres was really quite remarkable. Across the course of his career, he proved equally adept at light comedy and brooding horror as he did at sweeping musicals.

Having worked his way up through advertising, Parker emerged on the filmmaking scene at the same time as Ridley Scott (Alien) and other contemporaries. Famed for his sensitivity with actors, lush visuals and his ability to both amuse and disturb, Parker leaves behind a memorable legacy. Here's our list of his most memorable movies.


1. Bugsy Malone (1976)

Parker's breakthrough movie came from a desire to make a family-friendly picture that wasn't associated with Walt Disney. Citing the close bond with his own children, Parker also said that he'd worked extensively with kids in the past, which emboldened him to direct this childish spin on the classic gangster picture. Tommy guns become splurge guns and a pre-breakout Jodie Foster (later a BAFTA winner) croons as Talluluah in this witty and offbeat twist on crime conventions. The young cast are excellent and one must cite Parker's skill in getting them to assimilate grown-up mannerisms for comic effect. Also in the cast: a very young Dexter Fletcher, later to direct Elton John biopic Rocketman.

2. Midnight Express (1978)

If Bugsy Malone won Parker critical acclaim, this hard-hitting drama got him a fair degree of notoriety. Midnight Express is based on the harrowing true story of Billy Hayes, a young American who was incarcerated in a brutal Turkish prison for smuggling hashish. Among this gritty movie's many successes: the script by Oliver Stone, which won him his first Oscar, the brooding electronic score from Giorgio Moroder, which would define 1980s electronic soundscapes, and a scene-stealing John Hurt as incarcerated addict Max. Although Hayes criticised the movie for deviating too far from the truth, it was a huge box office hit, grossing $35 million against a $2 million budget.

3. Fame (1980)

Parker changed things up for his third feature, veering away from the gloomy psychodrama of Midnight Express into the realm of the musical. The exuberant nature of Fame, with its oft-repeated and Oscar-winning title song, would eventually inspire several stage spin-offs and a TV series. However, Parker's original can't be beaten: a lively though appreciably grounded story of American students attending the High School of Performing Arts in New York City. However much Parker sought to film at the real school, he was blocked from doing so owing to the notoriety of Midnight Express. It did little, however, to dampen Fame's impact, with the film becoming a huge commercial success.

4. Pink Floyd – The Wall (1982)

Pioneering rockers Pink Floyd sought Parker's visual innovation and genre-defying style to give life to this musical movie, based on their 1979 album The Wall. Scripted by Roger Waters and starring Bob Geldof, it's a disturbing and psychedelic plunge into madness, adorned by all manner of amorphous animation from Gerard Scarfe. Parker would later describe the making of the movie as a profoundly miserable experience, but The Wall has established a firm cult status, and now stands proud alongside Pink Floyd's most noteworthy achievements. It's also an indication of how brave Parker was in striking out in all manner of directions.

5. Shoot the Moon (1982)

Parker pulled double-duty in 1982, also helming this sensitive story of a marriage in free-fall. Albert Finney and Diane Keaton give career-best performances as the fracturing California couple, whose emotional deterioration is borne out in the damage done to their children. Finney would later describe the nature of the role as "personal", requiring him to look deep inside himself. In a sign of how excellent Parker was with actors, both Finney and Keaton were Golden Globe-nominated for their warts and all performances.

6. Birdy (1984)

Nicolas Cage and Matthew Modine star in this sensitive drama about two teenagers haunted by their experiences in the Vietnam War. Modine recently cited Birdy as a formative moment in his career, and praised Parker's input as a mentor. There's no denying that the director elicits sensitive and memorable performances from both actors, buoyed by a score from Peter Gabriel. 

7. Angel Heart (1987)

One of Parker's crowning achievements is this creepy and disturbing psychological horror (adapted from Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg), which crosses gumshoe detective fiction with cult voodoo terror. Mickey Rourke stuns as 1950s private investigator Harry Angel, who is tasked by Louis Cypher (a truly unnerving Robert De Niro) to find a missing guitar player. As the journey takes us from crowded New York to the humid and atmospheric streets of New Orleans, things start to take a menacing turn. Michael Seresin's darkly alluring cinematography, Trevor Jones' jazzy/tribal score and Rourke's electrifying turn as the increasingly unhinged Angel (would that he had kept up the level of skill) make this a landmark 80s chiller.

8. Mississippi Burning (1988)

Parker courted controversy and acclaim in equal measure with this powerful drama. Mississippi Burning tackles the true story of the disappearance of three Civil Rights workers in 1964, although it sensationalizes many of the aspects of the case. But even if the overheated screenplay drops the ball somewhat, the vitality of the performances is never in doubt. Gene Hackman is on commanding, Oscar-nominated form as lead FBI investigator Rupert Anderson, with an unusually restrained and sympathetic Willam Dafoe as Agent Alan Ward. The memorable viper's nest of deep south miscreants and racists includes Brad Dourif as the weaselly local Sheriff.

9. The Commitments (1991)

Parker described the making of this infectious Irish comedy as the most fun he'd ever had behind the camera. And that joy is very much evident on the screen. Coming off the back of two brooding Deep South thrillers, Parker changes things up once again to deliver the bittersweet story (based on Roddy Doyle's novel) about the formation of a Dublin soul band. Considered one of the defining Irish movies, the soundtrack of popular covers (most infamously, 'Mustang Sally') has exerted a lasting impact, while the non-professional actors bring gutsy spark to a tale of following one's dreams.

10. Evita (1996)

Parker returned to one of his favourite genres, the musical, for this sweeping Andrew Lloyd Webber adaptation. (It also marked Parker's second collaboration with screenwriter Oliver Stone.) Eventual star Madonna had pursued Parker for the lead role of Eva Peron, and her spirited rendition of 'You Must Love Me' was later graced with an Oscar for Best Original Song.  Despite mixed reviews, Madonna's performance was praised and the film was a box office success, grossing $141 million against a $55 million budget.

11. Angela's Ashes (1999)

The hardships of Irishman Frank McCourt form the backdrop to this grim drama. Born in the USA, McCourt later moved to Ireland with his family as they eked out a hard-scrabble existence. Parker's film is doused in liberal amounts of rain, mud and Catholic guilt as he observes young Frank's development from wide-eyed child to impressionable teen. With Emily Watson largely stranded as the eponymous Angela, it's left to the kids to pick up the emotional slack, with Michael Legge particularly impressive as the adolescent Frank. And for those expecting the Irish flavour of Parker's earlier The Commitments, be prepared for something much more dour.

What's your favourite Alan Parker movie? Let us know @Cineworld.