From his humble beginnings as an office boy at age 19, Alan Parker worked his way up in the advertising business and began his career in earnest when he and partner Alan Marshall founded a production company to make industrial films and commercials. Between 1969 and 1978, Parker churned out over 500 television commercials, winning every major industry award, while also being cited as an important influence on both fashion and film style of that time. He adeptly used lighting, and his sense of drama as a feature film director has seemed to come as much from his early need to convey a message in 30 seconds as from a sense of pictorial grace.
In 1973, Parker wrote and directed a 50-minute film, "No Hard Feelings", which the BBC bought and eventually aired several years later. "The Evacuees" (1975), his first film produced for the BBC, brought attention from the theatrical marketplace. The following year, he and producer David Puttnam collaborated on Parker's debut as a writer-director, "Bugsy Malone", a musical spoof of gangster films with an all-children cast. His second feature, the powerful "Midnight Express" (1978) was based on the true story of an American arrested in Turkey for drug smuggling and earned six Oscar nominations, including one for Parker. (It won for the awards for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Score.)
Parker followed the popular and stylish musical "Fame" (1980), his first US-produced feature, with arguably his most personal film "Shoot the Moon" (1981), a sensitively detailed examination of the disintegration of a marriage. The quirky, touching "Birdy" (1984) and the controversial "Angel Heart" (1987) solidified his reputation as a highly visual storyteller whose palette made use of the soundtrack as well as strong imagery. "Mississippi Burning" (1988), a glossy recreation of a famous civil rights murder case was praised for its fine performances (particularly by Gene Hackman as a veteran FBI man), but drew fire for its glib reworking of history. Plunging into farce, Parker directed Anthony Hopkins in "The Road To Wellville" (1994), a send-up of American health fadist John Kellogg. Parker also produced and wrote the screenplay based on T. Coraghessan Boyle's novel, but the colorful casting and spectacular cinematography was pretty much wasted on this uneven romp.
Among his contemporaries, Parker is the only director courageous enough to return again and again to the movie musical. Of course, good reviews build confidence, and critics have been generous with their praise of his efforts. The charming idea of casting kids in a gangster movie struck a responsive chord in most and "Bugsy Malone" also profited from an astonishingly assured performance from a 13-year-old Jodie Foster. His insights into talented young people and his ability to tell their stories in dozens of vignettes as opposed to a conventional linear plot helped insure the success of "Fame", and in "Pink Floyd--The Wall" (1982), he transformed a best-selling rock album into one of the great modern musicals. Visually stunning in its wide array of images that included animated sequences by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, this movie appealed to a much wider audience than just rock 'n' roll fans. "The Commitments" (1991) for all its high energy and great soul music fell a bit short of the mark established by his other musicals, and though his "Evita" (1996) was epic, lavish and fascinating, the MTV-style editing diluted the inherent power of the material and worked against the integrity of Madonna's titular performance.
Always fiercely independent, Parker has often lambasted the British film establishment and film critics. No stranger to controversy, he took on the ratings board of the MPAA and personally challenged their "X" rating of "Angel Heart". Parker has also authored a compilation of satirical cartoons, "Hares in the Gate" (1982), and in 1984 produced "A Turnip Head's Guide to British Cinema", a sarcastic documentary which ridiculed the critical mentality, a film that delighted his filmmaking contemporaries as well as his four children, whom he has cited as his chief inspiration.