Fabulous Baker Boys, The

  • Reviewed by: Jim Hemphill
  • Review Date: Aug 03, 2015
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Fabulous Baker Boys, The

Director

Steve Kloves

Release Date(s)

1989 (July 14, 2015)

Studio(s)

20th Century Fox (Twilight Time)
  • Film/Program Grade: A+
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: A+

Review

Screenwriter Steve Kloves’ directorial debut The Fabulous Baker Boys is a film so old-fashioned that it actually comes across as something completely modern, a remarkably cohesive masterpiece of varying tones and styles that owes a great deal to the films of the 1940s yet cuts deeper and harsher – and sexier – than those Production Code-constrained movies ever could. There’s not a gun or a detective in sight, but in its romantic fatalism the picture is an undeniable heir to noir classics like Out of the Past; indeed, in the liner notes for Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray film historian Julie Kirgo draws a direct line from the weary charisma of Robert Mitchum’s performance in that film to Jeff Bridges' equally iconic work here. With its rain-slicked Seattle streets and bittersweet sense of resignation, The Fabulous Baker Boys is pure film noir all the way – but it’s also a very funny romantic comedy and one of the most complex portraits of sibling love and rivalry ever put on screen…oh, and did I mention it’s a musical, too?

The film’s plot is elegantly clear and compact, exhibiting the same slick professionalism that would later nab Kloves one of the most lucrative screenwriting gigs in history when he went on to write seven of the eight Harry Potter movies. Jeff Bridges and real-life brother Beau play the title characters, a pair of piano-playing brothers who have eked out a living performing in crummy hotels and cocktail lounges. Jeff is a true artist with little ambition and even less sense of how to manage a career; Beau lacks his brother’s talent but knows how the wheels of business turn. Their complementary skill sets serve them just fine until they take on a third partner, sultry singer Suzy Diamond (Michelle Pfeiffer in an all-time great star turn), whose presence unearths long-simmering tensions and exposes the holes in the rationalizations each brother has manufactured to survive.

Focusing almost exclusively on these three characters (while also populating the film with a seemingly endless supply of colorful supporting players, again in true 1940s fashion), Kloves spins an increasingly involving yarn that is as complex as it is spectacularly entertaining. Witty dialogue alternates with elegantly choreographed and performed musical numbers, silent gestures of poignancy coexist alongside monologues filled with observational insight, and in scene after scene Kloves asks profoundly difficult moral questions of both his characters and his audience. This is one of those truly adult films in which core choices – between family and bachelorhood, between business and art, between stability and risk, etc. – are shown to be incredibly hard to make, and in which the characters’ actions are always completely even relatable, even when they’re at odds with each other.   

Kloves’s screenplay is one of the best of its decade (the film was released in 1989), but his direction is what really brings it to life (in addition, of course, to his able performers, all of whom do career-best work here). The movie is filled with gorgeous images that are both beautiful for their own sake and cleanly, concisely express the relationships between the characters; a composition in which Jeff Bridges occupies one side of the frame in close-up while Beau and Michelle Pfeiffer talk about him on the other side from a distance tells us everything we need to know about how all three characters are feeling at that particular moment. The cinematography is by master cameraman Michael Ballhaus, a frequent collaborator of Fassbinder and Scorsese who bathes his principals here in lush, vibrant colors when appropriate and punishes them with harsh edge light and shadows in their bleaker moments. Kloves has cited Hopper’s paintings as an influence, and this is one of those movies in which many shots could be taken out of context and hung on the wall as still frames.

Twilight Time has done a top-notch job on the transfer, improving on previous home video releases to truly capture the depth and breadth of Ballhaus’ frames – the detail in the shadows is particularly impressive, and the movie’s bold reds and oranges have never looked sharper or more vivid. The robust DTS-HD soundtrack is a winner as well, particularly in the terrific-sounding musical numbers. (Dave Grusin’s exceptional score is available as an isolated audio track.) Adding to the package’s appeal are a pair of excellent commentary tracks, one a narration by Ballhaus carried over from an earlier DVD release and the other a fantastic production history by Kirgo, Kloves, and Nick Redman. Taken together, the two commentaries offer a four-hour film school, a clinic in writing, directing, and shooting that is essential listening for anyone interested in this movie – or in filmmaking in general. The disc also contains twenty minutes of extremely entertaining deleted scenes that further deepen the viewer’s understanding of the film and its characters, making this one of Twilight Time’s best limited editions to date.

- Jim Hemphill

 

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