The British Film Institute confirmed Parker’s death Friday morning. An exact cause wasn’t given, but he reportedly died after a long illness.
We're deeply saddened to learn that British filmmaker Alan Parker passed away this morning. Also a former Chairman of the BFI, his works as director include Midnight Express, The Commitments and Angela's Ashes https://t.co/wuBtJvHG1b pic.twitter.com/TDEqyxWgWb
— BFI (@BFI) July 31, 2020
Over three decades, Parker directed a diverse mix of films — and he proved his versatility from the very start. His first feature was 1976’s Bugsy Malone — a Prohibition-era gangster flick that was also a musical (with songs by pop hitmaker Paul Williams), a comedy, and a movie in which all the adult parts were played by children. The film was a hit, garnering an Oscar nod, three Golden Globe nominations and a handful of BAFTA wins, including Best Screenplay for Parker.
After scoring a breakout hit with a G-rated musical, Parker made 1978’s Midnight Express — a gritty Oliver Stone-penned drama based on the story of Billy Hayes, an American who escaped from a Turkish prison after being locked up for smuggling hash. The film earned Parker his first of two Oscar nominations for Best Director. The second came 10 years later for 1988’s Mississippi Burning, another fraught biographical drama about two FBI agents (played by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe) investigating the disappearance of three Civil Rights workers in Mississippi.
After Bugsy Malone, music remained a central component of Parker’s work. In 1980, he directed the classic teen musical drama Fame, and then in 1982, he helmed the film adaptation of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. While the movie would become a psychedelic cult classic and a dorm room staple, neither Parker nor the members of Pink Floyd were particularly happy with the film. Roger Waters famously described its relentless visuals as an “onslaught upon the senses, that didn’t give me, anyway, as an audience, a chance to get involved with it.” And Parker himself even said he probably shouldn’t have made the film in its own press material when it was released in 1982.
In 2016, however, Parker had eased his take a bit, telling Louder Sound: “When I go to film festivals and they show my films, they always include The Wall and it’s always packed out. So it always appears wimpy to say I hated making it. I have mellowed a bit, and say it was a ‘tortured but highly creative time’. Not to be repeated.”
Parker’s other musical endeavors include the celebrated 1991 film adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s novel, The Commitments, which tells the story of an aspiring Irish soul band. And in 1996, he directed Madonna and Antonio Banderas in the film adaptation of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Evita. Even when he wasn’t directing musicals or films about music, music played a key role in Parker’s work, a relationship best epitomized by Giorgio Moroder’s groundbreaking, Oscar-winning score for Midnight Express.
Parker’s final two films were 1999’s Angela’s Ashes — based on Frank McCourt’s acclaimed memoir of the same name — and 2003’s The Life of David Gale. In 2015, Parker explained why he’d stopped making movies during a seminar at the Bari International Film Festival: “Directors do not improve with age: they repeat themselves, and while there are exceptions, their work generally does not get any better,” he said. “This is the reason why I have decided not to make any more films.” (Parker added that he was offered the chance to direct a Harry Potter movie, but turned it down because “I didn’t like it, I didn’t understand it and I wasn’t interested in it”).
In lieu of filmmaking, Parker found a creative outlet in painting, telling The Guardian in 2017, “ I can honestly say that since I’ve concentrated on the painting full time, the last three years have been the most enjoyable of my life.”
While he certainly had his Hollywood successes, Parker was a giant in the British film industry. He helped found the Directors Guild of Great Britain in the Eighties and was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1995 before being knighted in 2002. He served as chairman of the British Film Institute and in 2013 received the BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award, the British Academy’s highest honor.