Film Score: Dave Grusin Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Starring: Beau Bridges, Jeff Bridges, Michelle Pfeiffer and Ellie Raab
The Fabulous Baker Boys is one of those pictures that transcends time and place and remains fresh to this day. It has an incredibly rich and humorous screenplay combined with a wonderful directing touch. Getting the two Bridges brothers to play onscreen brothers was a coup as well, and the work they did to make the piano playing seem realistic is just a joy to watch. The film boasts solid singing from Michelle Pfeiffer and has some great character actors in key supporting roles. If the film has a weakness, it’s the actual music. I’m not a big fan of smooth jazz, a category that Dave Grusin falls squarely into, but even with that it’s a soundtrack that I enjoy for the associations it brings to mind from the film.
The story concerns two piano playing brothers, the Fabulous Baker Boys. Beau Bridges plays the older brother, a nerd who has a facility for playing but lacks the imagination to improvise. His younger brother, Jeff Bridges, is a jazz pianist who is literally handcuffed to prewritten arrangements as well as his brother. The two have been playing professionally for fifteen years and the magic has worn off. To revive the act they hire Michelle Pfeiffer as a singer and suddenly become a hot item again. But when Jeff Bridges and Pfeiffer fall for each other it creates a rift between the brothers, and the dissolution of the group alternately hilarious and heart wrenching.
The most engaging thing about the film is that Beau and Jeff Bridges are brilliant together. Their characters could almost make you think that’s the way they are in real life, though we know they’re not. Michelle Pfeiffer, after a turn in the disastrous Grease 2, certainly redeems herself here. She has a sultry voice that, while not particularly great, is certainly in character for a woman who has struggled getting singing work in the context of the film. Ellie Raab, who had a brief career as a child actress in the nineties, does a terrific job as the neglected girl from upstairs in Jeff Bridges’ apartment building. Bit parts by the great Dakin Matthews as well as Xander Berkeley and Ken Lerner as club owners are also a nice touch. Jennifer Tilly has a nice turn as a goofy waitress who auditions for the singing spot, and Alan Hale look-alike Bradford English is great as the basketball coach at the telethon.
Writer-director Steve Kloves, who went on to write all of the Harry Potter films, did an amazing job with the script. The humor that emerges seamlessly from the characters and the situations is pure pleasure. As I stated earlier, Dave Grusin is not my idea of jazz. But he assembled a nice group here, with Ernie Watts on the tenor saxophone, Sal Marquez on trumpet, and Lee Ritenour on guitar. The opening number, “Jack’s Theme” and “Shop Till You Bop” are great tunes. The only real disappointment is that the killer piano solo by Joel Scott on “Lullaby of Birdland” from the film is not on the soundtrack album. In its place is a fairly tame version by the Earl Palmer Trio. The Fabulous Baker Boys has so much going for it that it’s an easy recommendation. It’s also one of my favorite films of all time and multiple viewings over the years have done nothing to diminish the magic.