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The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)

July 2nd, 2008 · 5 Comments

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Synopsis
In Seattle, Jack Baker (Jeff Bridges) leaves his latest one-night stand in her bed. “You’ve got great hands,” she tells him on his way out. Jack dusts off his tux and shuffles to a gig at the Starfire Lounge. Performing a dual piano act with his partner of 31 years – his older brother Frank (Beau Bridges) – Jack can barely mask his contempt for his job, his surroundings and his employer. His only happiness seems to come from his dog, the 10-year-old neighbor (Ellie Raab) who’s adopted him as a surrogate dad and performing his own brand of sophisticated jazz piano at an after hours joint.

With audiences drying up, Frank holds auditions for a singer. Thirty-seven “singers” later, Susie Diamond (Michelle Pfeiffer) enters. While her entertainment experience is limited to being on call for the Triple A Escort Service, Susie’s voice is elegant and powerful. After a rocky start, the Fabulous Baker Boys and the Sensational Susie Diamond start drawing crowds. But the more intimately Jack and Susie get to know each other, the more nervous Frank becomes. “This isn’t some hat check girl you can leave behind at the Sheraton. You’ve got two shows a night with her!” Jack ignores the advice. Both he and Susie come to regret it.

Production history
A love for movies brought Steve Kloves from Sunnyvale, California to UCLA, where he worked at a campus deli and found little time for class. He dropped out his sophomore year and took an unpaid internship with an agent. Barely old enough to drink, he wrote a script called Swings, an “’80s version of Diary of a Mad Housewife” about women in the suburbs. The script brought Kloves to the attention of Paramount, which put his third screenplay – a coming of age tale set against World War II titled Racing With The Moon – into production in 1983 with Richard Benjamin directing and Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage starring.

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Kloves started work on his next script. “I had spent a lot of time in bad hotels and I would occasionally go down to the bar and hear some guy play the piano, and some of them were pretty good. The way my mind tripped off on it was that this guy’s parents gave him piano lessons to improve his life and give him an opening into culture and there he was, twenty years later, at a Holiday Inn playing ‘Feelings.’ ” Kloves finished writing The Fabulous Baker Boys in 1985 and sold it to producer Paula Weinstein. She took the project to Mark Rosenberg, president of production at Warner Brothers.

Chevy Chase and Bill Murray were proposed to star. Kloves wanted Jeff and Beau Bridges and spent the next three years holding out for the opportunity to direct the film himself. Mark Rosenberg left Warner Brothers, partnering with producer/director Sydney Pollack to form Mirage Productions. Pollack read The Fabulous Baker Boys and recalled, “The first thing that struck me was its sense of atmosphere, mood and leanness. Steve is a minimalist, and there is something extremely evocative in the understated way he writes.” But even with the Bridges, Mirage was unable to interest a studio. Finally, in 1988, Fox agreed to finance the film at $11.5 million.

For the role of Susie Diamond, Kloves hadn’t considered anyone except Michelle Pfeiffer. It was hoped she would be able to do her own singing, but it had been seven years – for Grease 2 – since Pfeiffer had sang or had a voice lesson. Composer Dave Grusin suggested a singer/songwriter named Sally Stevens coach Pfeiffer’s vocal performance. After taking the actress to the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel to hear a nightclub singer and get the ambiance down, they spent six weeks rehearsing for two hours a day at Pfeiffer’s Santa Monica home. Stevens recalls, “I can swear that every single note in that movie was hers.”

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Shooting commenced in December 1988. Though set in Seattle, much of the film was shot in L.A., with the production utilizing the Biltmore Hotel, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and the Ambassador Hotel for key musical sequences. Nominated for four Academy Awards – including a Best Actress nomination for Pfeiffer – and a darling of nearly every critic that reviewed it, audiences stayed away. Kloves recalls, “Baker Boys was considered a difficult, quirky movie. Dark. Anything in the present state of Hollywood where people have real arguments is considered dark.” It wasn’t until the film was released on home video that moviegoers warmed up to it.

Opinion
Jazz music, a conflict that stays mostly internalized in the main character, and a dry sense of humor are only a few of the challenges Kloves imposes on the audience here, the number one being that his screenplay doesn’t tell us much more about these characters or their music than we’d soak up tending bar at one of their gigs. The reason that The Fabulous Baker Boys endures as a classic is precisely because it refuses to impose any artificial plot devices, jokes or dialogue on the audience, transporting us right into those dingy lounges with their blue collar musical acts.

Using the success metric coined by Howard Hawks, this movie has three great scenes and no bad ones. Pfeiffer’s audition to “More Than You Know” is magic, as is her show stopping performance of “Makin’ Whoopee” atop a piano. And any screenwriter should envy the way Kloves bookends his story. While Susie Diamond is still the best role of Michelle Pfeiffer’s career, Jeff Bridges walks away with the movie, playing a worn out rake who’s heard the same lines and played the same tunes one time too many. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus brings an Edward Hopper/“Nighthawks” vibe to the film, aided immeasurably by Dave Grusin’s mellow musical score.

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Nathan Rabin at The Onion A.V. Club writes, “American studios turned out plot-light, atmosphere-heavy observational gems like this throughout the ’70s, but when Baker Boys hit screens in the late ’80s, its understated, world-weary sophistication stood out like a Cole Porter ballad sandwiched between generic Top 40 R&B hits … Though it lacks momentum as it ambles to a close, Baker Boys is nevertheless a touching, sly, resonant look at the joy and pain of collaboration, and the way jaded souls cut themselves off from their emotions to keep heartache at bay, but ultimately end up hurting each other all the same.”

“Even by the standards of leisurely paced films, The Fabulous Baker Boys takes its sweet time to kick its dramatic arc into gear. The movie, especially its final act, could’ve used tighter editing. But those are minor complaints. Both Bridges are excellent; it might be the pinnacle of Beau Bridges’ filmic career. Pfeiffer initially overplays the brassy broad routine (perhaps still channeling her performance from 1988’s Married to the Mob) … but her performance transcends vocal prowess. Heterosexual males might have trouble watching Pfeiffer’s rendition of “Makin’ Whoopee” without drooling on themselves,” writes Phil Bacharach at DVD Talk.

Vince Leo at QWipster’s Movie Reviews writes, “This is the film that contains the classic scene of Michelle Pfeiffer in a red dress laying on top of the piano, belting out the standard, ‘Makin’ Whoopee’, and there are several other moments that make this a worthwhile watch for those who enjoy thoughtful fare with lots of good music. It’s an efficiently made film made by consummate professionals, and for a night of quality sights, sounds, and good performances, the price of the rental should be well worth it.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Brother/brother relationship · Concert · Midlife crisis · Music · Prostitute · Road trip · Unconventional romance

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Burbanked // Jul 2, 2008 at 8:55 pm

    Excellent pieced as always, Joe!

    Because of Mark Rosenberg and Paula Weinstein’s close personal relationship to Kloves after BAKER BOYS, he became a frequent visitor at our Spring Creek offices, especially as the company ramped up to produce his not-as-great follow-up FLESH AND BONE. I got to talk to Kloves a handful of times – usually when he and Mark were sharing producery cigars in Mark’s office – and he was always a bright, friendly, sophisticated and down-to-earth guy. Very not-Hollywood, very approachable and kind.

    Hell, anyone in Hollywood who’d treat an office assistant as a human got a thumbs-up in my book.

    Nice to see how his career has taken off with all the HARRY POTTER adaptation work, but I also wish he’d get back to directing.

  • 2 Adam R // Jul 3, 2008 at 6:30 am

    Surprised to know it was mostly shot in L.A., as I thought the Seattle location was a great decision that helped set it apart from all the films set in Chicago or N.Y.

    I agree that Jeff Bridges is great in this (as always), but I think Beau takes the MVP here. His anger with his brother feels genuine, and the aftermath of the TV appearance has an awkward quality because it seems like you’re watching two siblings go for each other’s throats.

  • 3 Hedwig // Jul 3, 2008 at 6:32 am

    I really like this film, especially, as you mentioned, its mood and its atmosphere. The Hopper/Nighthawks comparison is an apt one.

    Also, for me, this movie made for an interesting revelation: what? The Dude used to be hot?

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Jul 3, 2008 at 12:25 pm

    Alan: That’s a great story. It seems rare that you hear about a filmmaker treating people with dignity and respect for no reason whatsoever. Sounds like you had a nice bungalow type job on the lot and have many more stories to share. Thanks for commenting, as always.

    Adam: Many of the interiors were shot in L.A., but I still think the production made the most of showing off Seattle. Jack’s flat and the scene where the girl climbs up on the rooftop comes to mind. I’m sure you’ve seen Singles, which could take place in no other city and no other time than Seattle in the early ’90s.

    Hedwig: Michael Ballhaus also shot After Hours and The Color of Money. This film is sort of the culmination of a “Nighthawks” trilogy for him. As for Bridges, you thought he always had his beer belly from The Big Lebowski? You never saw Starman? He’s probably one of the more physical, athletic actors in movies, not to mention one of the consistently best. I’d go as far as to say Jeff Bridges is my favorite actor, period.

  • 5 Jeremy // Jul 10, 2008 at 11:31 am

    Simply put…one of my all time favorite films and the role that pretty much made Michelle Pfeiffer my favorite American actress.
    Honestly, that last scene with Michelle and Jeff outside of her apartment pretty much sums up everything I love about film…simply magical.

    “Intuition…”

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