The Fabulous Baker Boys Is the Brighter Half of A Star Is Born
By Nick Nadel
The Michelle Pfeiffer/Jeff Bridges film relies on the same classic formula: two performers with blistering chemistry plus catchy musical numbers.
An unexpected joy of the new version of A Star Is Born is the way Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s musical calls to mind the days before franchise blockbusters dominated the multiplex, and the big screen was a reliable source for toe-tapping heartstring-tuggers. If you leave A Star Is Born longing for more swoony romanticism set to a hummable score, pull up a stool and take a listen to Jeff Bridges and Michelle Pfeiffer making beautiful music together in the 1989 drama The Fabulous Baker Boys.
Real-life brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges play Jack and Frank Baker, a pair of aging musicians eking out a living tickling the ivories in dingy cocktail lounges and tiki bars. Similar to the dynamic between Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born singer/songwriter Jackson Maine and his manager/half-brother Bobby (Sam Elliott), Jack (Jeff) is the musical prodigy, while older brother Frank (Beau) keeps their ramshackle enterprise afloat. In need of some fresh blood to jumpstart their act, the Baker Boys enlist singer Susie Diamond (Michelle Pfeiffer, in an Oscar-nominated performance), a former escort with a sultry voice and no-nonsense attitude. On and offstage the sparks fly between Jack and Susie, and the Baker Boys act is never the same again.
Much like Lady Gaga’s chills-inducing performance of “Shallow” in A Star Is Born, Michelle Pfeiffer crooning “Makin’ Whoopee” in a slinky red dress atop a piano exploded into the pop culture landscape. (The scene has been parodied in everything from the Charlie Sheen comedy Hot Shots! to The Simpsons.) Though she had previously sang (with less success) on the big screen in Grease 2, Pfeiffer studied with vocal coach Sally Stevens to perfect her smoky renditions of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” “My Funny Valentine” and other standards. Like Jackson Maine falling for Ally (Lady Gaga) after hearing her sing “La Vie En Rose,” Susie first catches Jack’s eye with a moving version of “More Than You Know.” Susie also shares Ally’s penchant for cursing like a longshoreman (she drops the “F”-bomb during her first performance with the Baker Boys) and standing up for herself when it come to her music career. (Susie’s rant about having to sing “Feelings” night after night is particularly memorable.)
Whether they’re trading quips about cigarette brands or avoiding their obvious attraction by puttering around a shared hotel suite, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jeff Bridges have an undeniable onscreen chemistry. Bridges brings his natural charm and an underlying sadness to Jack, while Pfeiffer builds on the mix of dry humor and sex appeal that made her a superstar in movies like The Witches of Eastwick and Married to the Mob. The Bridges boys bounce naturally off each other as well, and Beau holds his own opposite Jeff as the brothers come to blows over their fractured partnership. (Surprisingly, The Fabulous Baker Boys is the only time Jeff and Beau shared the big screen together.) And keep an eye out for Jennifer Tilly as an aspiring singer who sings “The Candy Man” like Betty Boop after a couple huffs of helium.
Far from the roaring stadium crowds and rock star excess of A Star Is Born, The Fabulous Baker Boys shines a dim light on the wounded souls on the periphery of the music business. Writer/director Steve Kloves paints a vivid world of smoke-filled clubs and cheesy banquet halls set to Dave Grusin’s jazzy score. Kloves is best known these days as the go-to screenwriter for the Harry Potter franchise, penning seven installments in the mega-popular series. But his two outings as writer/director, The Fabulous Baker Boys and the underrated Dennis Quaid/Meg Ryan Southern noir Flesh and Bone, weave a bewitching magic of a decidedly more adult variety (Pfeiffer and Bridges have a racy backrub scene that earned the film its R-rating). Viewed today, it’s easy to see why Michelle Pfeiffer won a Golden Globe for her performance, propelled by that iconic “Makin’ Whoopee” scene.