Why The Fabulous Baker Boys always gives me feelings.
Sometimes love is transitory. It can be raw and passionate. You have a deep attraction to each other, you speak with your hands or a glance. The way that person looks at you with such intensity can knock you off your feet. There’s a physical connection between you, an urgency. In that moment the two of you are as one, and when you can’t be together your heart aches. But then it’s gone, floating away like bubbles on the breeze. You both move on, but the memories remain. Now it’s just a feeling. Sometimes of loss, more often of something gained, but at least you felt it.
That’s the kind of love at the heart of The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). It’s a rich, sensual film with a passionate connection between two people who aren’t quite in the right place but find each other at its heart.
Written and directed by Steve Kloves, it stars real life brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges as Jack and Frank Baker, who after years of playing together are struggling to make a living as lounge jazz pianists. In a bid to turn their fortunes around they take on a female singer, Susie Diamond, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Her presence revitalizes their career but forces the brothers to re-examine their relationship with each other and their future path.
This is a tale of lives lived in the heart of an anonymous feeling city, tinged with regrets and disappointments. Time is passed ruminating over bitter tasting coffee in cheap diners the morning after the night before. They are people getting by, but not really getting on. They bury their broken dreams, coming together to perform then disappearing again into the seemingly endless night-time.
You can taste the whiskey, smell the cheap perfume covering over the loneliness and broken promises. Love in this life is about finding someone to give you some comfort, an escape, so you don’t have to spend another night alone. It’s a film full of ambience, of smoky bars and bluesy music and the evocative score is perfect.
I first watched The Fabulous Baker Boys in my early teens, before I really knew about love and relationships. Pfeiffer is fantastic as Susie, all raw sensuality and street sense. She’s sharp and witty and nobody’s fool. We know hardly anything about her, but the feeling she puts into her singing tells a thousand stories.
Naturally I fancied Jeff Bridges as Jack. He is brooding and intense, and I knew even then he was the kind of man you couldn’t trust to do the right thing, but because he has great hands it was probably worth the risk.
The relationship between the two Baker brothers is touching and poignant. The acting is wonderful, with Beau Bridges bringing a delicate, nuanced performance to his portrayal of stoic older brother Frank.
But the scenes between Susie and Jack are electric and really make the film come alive. I love the build-up of sexual tension, with Jack’s intense indifference masking his true feelings for Susie. There’s a touch of obsession about their behaviour, the endless watching of each other and waiting. A spikiness to their dialogue adding to the feeling of wanting and waiting for the inevitable. That intense feeling when you know you shouldn’t, but you really want to.
I also found it deeply romantic, all that doomed love and star-crossed attraction. I hadn’t experienced that kind of attraction back then, but I felt the pull of it. Later in life I felt it, and that gave me a deeper understanding of the nuances of the film.
The New Year’s Eve piano scene, where Susie sings Makin’ Whoopee while writhing around on top of Jack’s grand piano to his seeming indifference, is the iconic moment of the film and it’s wonderful fun to watch. Pfeiffer oozes confident sensuality, it feels as though she is fully in control of her sexuality and reacting to the moment and the music.
For me, the most significant scene of the film is the one after that. The party has ended, the audience have left. It’s just Susie and Jack alone in the empty ballroom, surrounded by streamers and balloons and the inevitability of their attraction to each other. Jack massages her aching neck, those amazing hands touching her at last. The camera focusses on every movement and we feel every soft caress, every shiver as he touches her skin, the warmth of his lips as he begins to kiss her neck and her back. The connection between them in that moment is all-consuming, they kiss passionately as he slips his hands into her red velvet dress.
The passion of the moment is pierced by the inevitable regrets of the morning after. They fight it, but you know if it’s that good it will happen again. You can feel it.
This is a film that tells a simple story of relationships, between siblings and between lovers, with a hefty dose of regret and longing. It’s so beautifully played and paced. We want all three of them to follow their dreams and find happiness, but the feeling that all good things must come to an end looms large as the film nears its conclusion.
The last scene, when Jack waits for Susie in the street, is ambiguous. We’re not sure if they will see each other again. And even if they do, I’m not convinced it would last anyway. As people they seem too broken to be able to heal each other. Theirs is a love that ran deep but brief, but they’ll always have that connection and the memory of the moment, the feelings of love.
I find that premise romantic, it’s just as wonderful as the typical boy meets girl and falls in love scenario, but more evocative because it’s raw and real. It might not be an idealistic story fit for the message in a greetings card, but it’s a living, breathing, feeling love that takes your breath away. We all need that in our lives at some point.