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Sir Alan Parker was born in Matlock, Derbyshire in 1944, and grew up in Islington, North London. His father was a house painter, and his mother a dressmaker. After studying at grammar school he began work in advertising, hoping to meet girls. He loved to write, but other than taking an interest in photography, he had no plans to become a filmmaker. While working for an advertising agency in the 1960, he met David Puttnam and Alan Marshall, who would later produce his films.

By the late 1960s Parker had moved from copywriting to directing television commercials, forming a company with Marshall in 1970 and making some of the most famous adverts of the 1970s (such as the Cinzano promo starring Joan Collins and Leonard Rossiter.) “Looking back, I came from a generation of filmmakers who couldn’t have really started anywhere but commercials,” he said later, “because we had no film industry in the United Kingdom at the time. People like Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Adrian Lyne, Hugh Hudson, and myself. So commercials proved to be incredibly important.”

In 1971, Parker wrote the screenplay for Melody (aka S.W.A.L.K.), starring young actors Jack Wild and Mark Lester (of Oliver! Fame.) He made his directorial debut on television with No Hard Feelings (1973), a bleak love story set during the Blitz. In 1976, he won a BAFTA for The Evacuees, another TV movie drawn from the childhood experience of Jack Rosenthal, and starring his wife Maureen Lipman.

Parker’s first feature film, Bugsy Malone (1976), was a musical parody of 1930s Hollywood gangster movies with a cast of children headed by Jodie Foster and Scott Baio. “I’d worked a lot with kids and I had four very young children of my own at the time,” he recalled. “When you do have young children like that you’re very sensitive to the kind of materials that’s available for them … The only kind of movies they could see were Walt Disney movies … I thought it would be nice to make a movie that would be good for the kids, and also the adults that had to take them. So to be absolutely honest, Bugsy Malone was a pragmatic exercise to break into American film.”

Having never visited the U.S. prior to shooting Bugsy Malone, for many years he felt embarrassed by it, but was finally reconciled to its enduring popularity. He won an Oscar for his screenplay, while Foster was named Best Supporting Actress and Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles (a category now discontinued.)

Parker’s next film, Midnight Express (1978) was completely different, with an Oscar-winning script by Oliver Stone based on the harrowing true story of Billy Hayes (played by Brad Davis) and his attempts to escape a Turkish prison after being convicted for smuggling hashish. He returned to the musical genre with Fame (1980), another blockbuster set in New York’s High School for Performing Arts. The film’s runaway success inspired the foundation of similar schools in London and Liverpool, and a popular but inferior TV series. (Among those who auditioned for the 1982 spin-off was a young Madonna, whose first album was still a year away from release.)

With his fourth film, Shoot the Moon (1982), Parker once again changed direction, crafting an intimate portrait of a dysfunctional marriage starring Albert Finney and Diane Keaton. It is considered one of his most personal, and underrated works. Also that year, he collaborated with Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters on the screen adaptation of the English band’s rock opera, The Wall. In 1984, he made another tender, introspective film, Birdy, based on a novel by William Wharton, and starring Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage.

Angel Heart (1987), Parker’s most controversial film to date, was an evocative slice of Southern Gothic starring Mickey Rourke and Robert DeNiro. Some viewers were shocked by a blood-soaked sex scene featuring Lisa Bonet (best-known for her wholesome image in TV’s The Cosby Show.) Parker remained in America’s Deep South for Mississippi Burning (1988), based on the real-life investigation into the murders of three civil rights workers in 1964. Starring Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe as two FBI agents and Frances McDormand as the racist Deputy Sheriff’s wife. The film was criticised by civil rights activists for its lurid violence and depiction of black characters as one-dimensional victims. Another racially-themed drama, Come See the Paradise (1990), focused on the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

In 1991, Parker returned to musical territory with his much-loved adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s novel, The Commitments, about a group of young Dubliners who form a soul band. Parker’s decision to cast unknown musicians instead of established actors resulted in a bestselling soundtrack album. Parker returned to the U.S. for The Road to Wellville (1994), starring Anthony Hopkins as the unorthodox Dr. John Harvey Kellogg.

Finding Evita

The story behind Parker’s Evita is as dramatic as the woman who inspired it. Born into rural poverty, María Eva Duarte was a minor actress who became Argentina’s First Lady after her marriage to Juan Perón in 1946. A glamorous yet divisive figure, she died of cancer in 1952, aged thirty-three. While some viewed her as the nation’s spiritual leader, others have associated her ostentatious lifestyle with the more corrupt, anti-democratic aspects of her husband’s regime. After Perón lost power in 1955, both he and his late wife were denounced by the new military dictatorship. The couple’s reputation was restored after Perón regained power in 1973, and was succeeded by his third wife upon his death a year later.

After hearing a radio programme about the life of Eva Perón, the English lyricist, Sir Tim Rice, began working on a musical project about Argentina’s leading female icon with composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber. Initially released as a rock opera concept album, Evita was first staged in London’s West End in 1978, with Elaine Paige in the leading role (a Broadway production soon followed, with Patti Lupone.)

In 1973, the 15-year-old Madonna Ciccone, had also heard Evita’s life story on the radio while still a high school student in suburban Michigan. By 1986 she was a global superstar, and considering a remake of The Blue Angel (1930), starring another of her idols – Marlene Dietrich. (Its influence can be seen in her ‘Open Your Heart’ video.) However, the project – which was to co-star Robert De Niro, with Alan Parker directing – never made it past the development stage. A big-screen adaptation of Evita had been mooted for several years, but the major studios were sceptical that a lavish musical could draw cinemagoers. In early 1986, while shooting the ill-fated Shanghai Surprise in China, Madonna had spent her downtime learning more about Eva Perón.

By 1988, Oliver Stone was writing a screenplay for Evita, which he planned to direct. Stone invited Madonna to discuss it with himself, theatrical producer Robert Stigwood, and Andrew Lloyd-Webber at the composer’s Trump Tower apartment. Describing all three men as “fabulous misogynists,” Madonna decided she could not work with Stone in particular. Lloyd-Webber thought her rude, and when Stone insulted her in the press, Madonna moved on. Meryl Streep became the favoured choice, and spent a year preparing for the role until Stone shelved the project.

In the early 1990s Madonna had signed a lucrative film deal with Disney, where Glenn Gordon Caron (of Moonlighting fame) hoped to produce his own Evita screenplay. Madonna’s interest was piqued, but she considered Disney’s budget too low, and this version also fizzled out. However, she was still determined to play Evita, even teasing a Buenos Aires audience with a few bars of ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ during her Girlie Show tour in 1993. A year later, Disney’s Hollywood Pictures committed to a $60 million production, to be directed by Alan Parker.

Although his preferred leading lady was Michelle Pfeiffer, Parker was struck by an impassioned, four-page letter that Madonna wrote to him over the 1994 Christmas holiday, along with a copy of her Latin-themed ‘Take A Bow’ video. Pfeiffer became pregnant, and did not want to shoot Evita on location. Madonna was back in the ring, but her chequered acting career made her a risky proposition. Lloyd-Webber was concerned that her immense fame would overwhelm the picture, and unconvinced by her vocal range. Sir Tim Rice, however, favoured the singer to play the part over a more conventional actress. After accepting a flat $1 million fee – and forgoing a percentage of the film’s profits – Madonna signed on for Evita in 1995.

Rather than touring with her most recent album, Bedtime Stories, Madonna began studying with vocal coach Joan Lader, and released a compilation album, Something to Remember, showcasing her most powerful ballads. In October 1995, she arrived in London to begin the long process of recording Evita’s soundtrack (the story is told entirely in song, with no spoken dialogue.) As Parker remembered, she was extremely nervous on her first day in the studio; singing in front of Lloyd-Webber, accompanied by an orchestra who had never worked together. Parker subsequently arranged for her to move to a smaller studio, with the instrumentation being recorded separately.

Although they came from very different worlds, Madonna and Parker were both outspoken, driven and unafraid of stirring the pot. He soon found that Madonna’s aggressive demands belied a consummate professionalism, while her brother Christopher Ciccone would write that Parker was “keeping her ego on a tight leash, which I secretly applaud.”

Hello, Buenos Aires

In Argentina, meanwhile, the upcoming movie was being widely slated by Peronists (who objected to the stage show’s depiction of their heroine as a ruthless, amoral demagogue), and also their detractors (who argued that the musical would perpetuate the cult of ‘Santa Evita.’) The beleaguered President Carlos Menem, whose administration was mired in corruption scandals, denounced both Evita and its star, whom he described as “the embodiment of vulgarity” on national television. Carla Marin, one of Eva Perón’s former secretaries, threatened to kill Madonna if she set foot on Argentine soil; while the congresswoman Marta Rivadera proposed a motion to declare both Madonna and Alan Parker personae non grata in Buenos Aires. Not to be outdone, the city’s archbishop condemned Madonna’s casting as “pornographic and suitable.”

Parker called a crisis meeting in London that December with Madonna and her co-stars, Antonio Banderas (playing the Argentine-born revolutionary Che Guevara as a critical narrator/shadow self to Evita), and Jonathan Pryce (as Juan Perón.) Undeterred, Madonna flew to Buenos Aires in January 1996 ahead of the company, noting graffiti on the city’s walls as she drove from the airport. ‘Evita Lives, Get Out Madonna’ and ‘Death to Alan Parker and Your British Task Force’ were among the slogans daubed in the streets. Like Eva Perón, whose lowly origins and colourful past had been reviled by the upper classes, Madonna attracted idolatry and contempt in equal measure. At night, she was frequently kept awake by hysterical fans screaming outside her hotel window, and on one occasion, a teenage girl jumped on top of her moving car.

After negotiating with high-ranking officials in Buenos Aires, Parker secured for Madonna a meeting with Menem, where she achieved what nobody else could: full permission to film scenes in government buildings, including the presidential palace, La Casa Rosada, where Madonna would sing ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.’ After a full night on the balcony addressing hundreds of extras, she was too elated to speak.

Evita includes some factually dubious elements, such as the conceit of a young Eva following tango singer Augustín Magaldi (Jimmy Nail) from her hometown to Buenos Aires. In fact, there is no record of him performing in Junín during that period. In a later scene, Magaldi is shown performing at a charity concert in 1944; actually, he had died in 1938. Some musical numbers were repurposed. On the stage, ‘Another Suitcase In Another Hall’ was performed by Perón’s teenage mistress, having being ousted by Eva Duarte. But in the movie, Madonna sings it as the youthful Eva, after Magaldi rejects her. Both Madonna and Parker also felt that Peron’s remoteness towards Eva during her final illness was overlooked in the show. To convey Evita’s isolation, Tim Rice composed a new song for Madonna: ‘You Must Love Me.’

Overall, Madonna was determined to show the softer, more vulnerable side of Eva Perón, and also herself. She related to Argentina’s Catholic culture, and undoubtedly drew upon painful memories of her mother’s untimely death as she re-enacted Evita’s tragic decline. Some of Madonna’s biographers felt that Madonna ‘overidentified’ with her character, but as gossip columnist Liz Smith observed in the New York Post, her performance was “the closest Madonna will get to filming her own life story.”

In March, the company moved to Budapest where Madonna greeted Parker with some surprising news: she was pregnant. They agreed to keep it secret for as long as possible, though some of her 85 costumes would need refitting (the most worn by an actress in a film at that time.) The news broke in April, and while Madonna considered Evita the role of a lifetime, the remainder of the shoot left her exhausted. After filming wrapped in May, she had a sense of anti-climax. She then took some much-needed rest before the birth of her daughter, Lourdes (known as Lola) in September.

A month later, she was featured on the cover of Vanity Fair dressed Evita-style, with her personal record of the shoot, ‘The Madonna Diaries’, filling twenty-five pages. Alongside Parker’s monograph, The Making of Evita, it offered a personal account of the production. ‘You Must Love Me’ became the first of three hit singles released from the soundtrack album. No expense was spared by Disney in promoting the film, with Evita boutiques opening in branches of Bloomingdale’s. Channelling Evita’s glitzy 1947 ‘Rainbow Tour’ of Europe, premieres were held on both sides of the Atlantic, beginning in Los Angeles that December.

As might be expected for a Madonna movie – or, for that matter, an Alan Parker film – reviews for Evita were mixed, with Leonard Maltin dismissing it as “the world’s longest music video,” while David Denby sniped, “Madonna has gone from scandal to canonisation without passing through accomplishment.” However, Time’s Richard Corliss praised her unreservedly: “Lacking the vocal vigour of Elaine Paige’s West End Evita, Madonna plays Evita with poignant weariness,” he wrote. “Love or hate Madonna-Eva, she is a magnet for all eyes. You must watch her, and to find the soul of the modern musical for once on the big screen, you must watch Evita.”

In early 1997, Madonna won the Golden Globe award for Best Actress in a Musical Comedy. Although Evita was largely snubbed at the Oscars, ‘You Must Love Me’ – which Madonna performed at the live telecast – was named Best Original Song that year, and the film enjoyed a worldwide gross of $141,047,169.

Madonna would appear in three more films after Evita, including two outright failures and a final Bond movie cameo, before turning her hand to directing. “To me, the whole process of being a brush stroke in someone else’s painting is a little difficult,” she admitted in 2006. With Evita, however, she had found in Alan Parker a director who was supportive and understanding without being dominated by her. She would perform Evita’s deathbed ‘Lament‘ during her Reinvention Tour in 2004 (as seen in the documentary, I’m Going to Tell You A Secret), while on the Sticky and Sweet Tour in 2008 (filmed in Buenos Aires), she once again sang ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ to an adoring crowd.

Strength of Will

Parker moved a million miles away from the grandeur of Evita with his next film, Angela’s Ashes (1999), based on Frank McCourt’s bestselling memoir of his poverty-stricken Irish childhood, starring Emily Watson and Robert Carlyle. The Life of David Gale (2003), about a professor on death row in Texas, was a critical failure, and when subsequent film projects failed to get off the ground, he turned his attention to writing and art. Despite his generally irreverent attitude – in 1985, he produced a television documentary, A Turnip Head’s Guide to the British Film Industry – Parker never forgot his roots. In 1999, he was appointed chairman of the newly-formed UK Film Council; and in 2015, he donated his entire working archive to the British Film Institute (which he had once lampooned as “twenty-eight intellectuals in a room.”)

“I found the whole process of raising the money for a film debilitating,” he told The Guardian in 2017. “Serious films of some scale – the area where I worked – are rarer and rarer. I had led a charmed life for many decades. I made personal films in a European way and sensibility, but beneath the disciplines of the Hollywood umbrella. Mostly, I got my way because of strength of will and a built-in combativeness … But times changed and making serious films of some scale became less fashionable and more difficult to get made as cutting-edge drama migrated to TV and other platforms.”

After a long illness, Sir Alan Parker died aged seventy-six on August 1st, 2020. He is survived by his second wife and five children. “Alan Parker was a filmmaker more selective than your average,” Genna Rivieccio wrote on her Culled Culture blog. “His undeniable status as an auteur has perhaps gone too long unacknowledged save for in death because of his rare ability to adapt his talents to whatever material he was directing at the moment. Unlike, say, a Hitchcock or a Tarantino, there is nothing specifically ‘pinpointable’ about Parker’s style – save for an undeniable predilection for historical dramas. To that end, Evita was seemingly always destined to make it into his adept hands after the project spent decades in development hell.”

“I was so sad to hear about [his] passing,” Madonna wrote in an Instagram post. “One of the greatest directors I ever worked with – on the film Evita. He taught me so much, believed in me, pushed me to my limits and made an incredible film! Thank you!”