The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)
Written and directed by Steve Kloves
Produced by Paula Weinstein and six others
Cinematography by Michael Ballhaus
Music by Dave Grusin
MGM DVD (1:54)
The Fabulous Baker Boys represents yet another 80s film that I missed when it originally appeared. That’s probably a good thing. I feel sure I didn’t have the life experience in 1989 to properly appreciate the film. I do now.
The titular brothers Frank and Jack are in fact played by two brothers, Beau (right) and Jeff Bridges (left), respectively. They’ve been performing an act playing grand piano duos in Seattle area lounges, bars and clubs for 31 years, mostly small-time stuff. The older Frank – a pretty straight-laced family man – manages the act while Jack tolerates the pop-schmaltz set list and plays real jazz after hours when he can. When their audiences start thinning out (It’s hard to believe it took 31 years for audiences to get tired of this light-weight stuff; 31 minutes should be more than enough time), the boys decide to hold an audition for a vocalist, someone who can bring in bigger crowds.
The sultry Susie Diamond (Michelle Pfeiffer) gets the job, and after a rocky start, things begin to fall into place. But you know this because you’ve seen these types of movies before, right? You know that Jack is sooner or later going to want to hook up with Susie (a former escort), which will drive a wedge between Jack and Frank. We know this. We expect it. It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that that’s exactly what happens. While there are few plot surprises in The Fabulous Baker Boys, the film is loaded with great performances and revelations of character.
Pfeiffer (who does her own singing) is superb and not just while she’s singing “Makin’ Whoopee” atop Jack’s piano. She brings a range to the role that probably surprised a lot of critics and viewers at the time. It’s an outstanding performance, but don’t overlook the amazing interplay between Jeff and Beau Bridges. Maybe it’s because these guys are already brothers and there’s more honesty in their performances than we’ll ever know, but you can feel the conflict, the years, and even the sometimes tenuous love these characters have for each other.
Yet what resonated with me in 2017 was something that probably wouldn’t have resonated in 1989: the question of what you’re doing with your life. Or maybe it resonates in a different way. In 1989 I was 27 years old and probably would’ve seen Jack’s life as something to be avoided. Here’s a guy who’s really trying to live in two worlds following two dreams: his and his brother’s. Jack’s dating relationships are a series of one-night stands and his musical career with Frank is an unsatisfying one-night stand that’s lasted for 31 years. And here he is, faced with Susie, a gorgeous, talented woman who’s possibly trying to change her life. Or are the Fabulous Baker Boys just another stop along the road until she finds something better?
Now in my 50s, I see Jack’s life as one I narrowly avoided. (Not the one-night stands, but rather the career part.) After 15 years in the same career, I did change what I did for a living and while my former career wasn’t exactly drudgery, it was wearing me down. I can identify with Jack. But I can also identify with Frank, the guy trying to hold things together, to keep some consistency and stability going. Frank lives in a world that’s safe. Performing “Feelings” every night is a lot safer than performing “Makin’ Whoopee,” but it’s also a lot more boring.
I realize I’ve really told you how The Fabulous Baker Boys speaks to me on a personal level rather than giving you a proper review of the film. So be it. You can find a very good review of the film over at The Distracted Globe. In many ways, The Fabulous Baker Boys is a quiet little film about three people who could be from pretty much anywhere at pretty much any time. It spoke to me. Maybe it’ll speak to you as well. Or maybe it will simply entertain you. You can’t go wrong either way.
Photos: High-Def Digest, The Ace Black Blog, IMP Awards