An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)
- Credit: Archant
Spectacle counts for a lot these days. Blockbusters claim more media attention than ever before which means that smaller, quirkier films often slip passed unnoticed. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.
The Fabulous Baker Boys; Dir: Steve Kloves, Starring: Beau Bridges, Jeff Bridges, Michelle Pfeiffer, Cert: 15, 1989
One of the qualities of a truly great film is its re-watch value. Some films, even really good ones, only have one viewing in them. To be a great film you must be able to return to it time and again and feel that same sense of enjoyment you did the first time you encountered it and with each new viewing you discover something new about a true cinematic treasure.
The Fabulous Baker Boys is an engaging film exploring the complex relationship between two piano-playing brothers, brought vividly to life by real-life brothers Beau and Jeff Bridges. It reveals the underlying love they share but also the intense rivalry and frustration of two creative people who are forced through economic circumstance to live out a half-life, shackled together at either end of a pair of duelling pianos.
It’s a toxic situation and the independent-minded, jazz-loving, Jack Baker (Jeff Bridges) can barely conceal his contempt for their lounge-act or for their comatose audiences. When the pair start losing regular bookings because they are no longer pulling in the punters like they used to, older brother Frank Baker (Beau Bridges) suggests they need a singer to boost their profile.
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Enter wannabe singer and former happy-hooker Susie Diamond, played with street-smart cynicism by the Oscar-nominated Michelle Pfeiffer. Once they are trio, the dynamic between the brothers changes. Frank tries his best to run the act just like he has always done – with his big brother knows best attitude – but Jack finds that he has an ally in Susie.
As the film rolls on Jack starts to thaw and Susie loses some of her wariness. We get to see them forming a bond and as they do the act starts to evolve and become genuinely good.
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What hooks us into the film is the compelling performances delivered by the three lead actors. Armed with a fantastic and very perceptive script by writer-director Steve Kloves, who later went onto write the screenplays for all the Harry Potter films, the Fabulous Baker Boys offers us a great deal of humour as well as some genuinely moving regret.
As Susie becomes more confident, her presence fundamentally changes not only the act but the brothers relationship with each other.
It’s this emotional conflict which gives the film its great re-watch value. There’s tenderness and tragedy in equal measure and with each re-viewing you can’t help but wonder if some of the characters may make different choices this time around.
The film also delivers one of those immortal Hollywood ‘moments’ when Michelle Pfeiffer sings Making Whoopee in a sinful red dress sliding across the top of Jeff Bridges’ piano. It’s a breathtaking moment, flawlessly executed, that leaves everyone in the audience sitting bolt upright.
You know at that moment that nothing in their lives will ever be the same again. The ‘Making Whoopee’ scene may leave scorch marks on the piano lid but, for me, it’s not the real killer scene.
The scene which fundamentally changes everything and sets up Susie Daimond’s showcase performance is something all together quieter and more affecting.
For the most part Jeff Bridges’ Jack Baker has been a surly uncommunicative performer, one night Susie follows him to a small jazz club and quietly standing at the back of the room watches a really gifted performer take flight. It’s a wonderfully affecting scene because it is so understated and sets up everything that follows.
The Fabulous Baker Boys is a film which rewards emotional investment and if you love it, then you can return to it whenever you like and it will restore your faith in humanity.