The Fabulous Baker Boys
The Fabulous Baker Boys changed my life. Sounds like a hoary old cliché, no? But it’s true. I saw it three times the week it opened in 1989, and without ever having touched middle C, walked into a music store and signed up for piano lessons. The piano has been an integral part of my life since; I can’t imagine living without it.
Michelle Pfeiffer will not be lacking for love today. In addition to joining the giant birthday hug and crooning her praises along with tout le monde, I figured nobody would mind if I seized this opportunity to talk in some detail about this film, one of her best. Specifically, I’m interested in the role of music in this film, and the way the world of music fits into the world of this movie.
Steve Kloves wrote and directed The Fabulous Baker Boys. In a nutshell: Frank (Beau Bridges) and Jack Baker (Jeff Bridges) are a veteran lounge piano duo who’ve never had a day job. When times turn hard, they take on a singer, Suzie Diamond (Michelle, naturellement), and begin landing prime gigs. But she changes the dynamic between the brothers and catalyzes a long-time-coming fissure of values between them, both commercial and musical. Along the way, she and Jack become lovers.
When it comes down to it, the basic conflict in this movie is between two musical worlds: lounge and jazz. It’s mostly unarticulated in the film, but here’s how they are different. Lounge often draws from the jazz repertoire (the Great American Songbook—Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers & Hart et al.) and is melodically similar to jazz since they both play many of the same tunes. But unlike jazz, lounge involves little improvisation (“We play the same goddamn tune the same way every time” says Jack as he quits). Rhythmically, lounge often accents insistently and predictably, and is nervous about syncopation lest it lose the audience, who are only half-paying attention; they are there to eat and drink. And harmonically, lounge is relatively timid, laying off dissonant chords so as not to disrupt the mood. (Lounge is mood music.) Jazz, of course, thrives on syncopation and harmonic daring.
How does all this relate to the movie? The lounge career is Frank’s idea, and Jack goes along with it for fifteen years because he doesn’t seem to have the courage to break out and do what he really wants to do, which is play jazz. Jack lives alone in a run-down apartment downtown—the movie is set in Seattle—and Frank lives with his wife and kids in the suburbs. Frank runs the business but Jack is—the movie implies—the real artist.
Now, pull back a little and things start to get really interesting. Dave Grusin did the music for the film, and played both Frank’s and Jack’s piano parts. Two pianos is a scarifying format even for seasoned pros—there are just way too many notes that can be played at any one time; the excess of possibilities is fraught with danger. Train wrecks, muddy sound, too little space—these problems are all too common. But the times Jack plays alone, without Frank, we hear pure jazz. Dave Grusin plays lounge without condescending to it and jazz without putting it up on a pedestal. Grusin isn’t always loved in the jazz world—he’s accused of being a sell-out because he does a lot of soundtracks, occasionally slathers on the strings, runs a "smooth jazz" label, and tries too hard to cross over. But I like the way he represents the two musical genres in this movie, truthfully and non-judgmentally.
And you ask: Are we ever going to get to Michelle? Well, the single-best scene in the film is her first appearance. She is late for her audition, cusses loudly as she walks in, and has gum on her lip. But what follows is a brilliantly authentic musical episode, even if it only lasts two minutes. She asks for “More Than You Know,” and Jack, without skipping a beat, knocks off a sprightly two-bar intro for her. She cuts him off and snaps, “Real slow, okay?” He stops mid-note, pauses for just a second, and then reels off, improvised, a brand-new intro (in pure jazz spirit). Her voice starts out soft and tentative—Michelle did her own singing—but quickly gains in confidence without losing its vulnerability. He stays both with her and a hair’s breadth behind her, following where she leads. There’s a moment when he throws in a tasty little fill and a shadow of a smile crosses her face for a half-second, the first time we see her lighten. As she hits her last note, he holds back on playing anything, then glides in a half-step above her note for a bittersweet finish on a faintly tangy chord. It’s one the best love-making scenes I’ve ever seen.
(There is a wonderful and historic jazz moment that is an analogue of the one above. On the Miles Davis recording of “You’re My Everything” (1956) with his group which included Coltrane and the great pianist Red Garland, Miles starts out by blowing a few warm-up notes, stops, and then Red comes in with a pretty ballad-like intro. Miles cuts him off with a whistle and growls, “Play some block chords....” Red freezes, pauses for a second or two, and improvises on the spot a gorgeous block chord intro.)
Michelle’s singing is a little revelation in this film. Her models are not recent singers but chanteuses from the golden age of jazz singing, the 1950’s. She sings unfussily, confessionally, tenderly. And her small voice—it’d never work without amplification, but you could say that for millions of other singers too—appeals more than many other big and powerful ones because she seems acutely aware of the words she’s singing and the humanism of these classic songs. Here’s a phrase that used to be a put-down to mean that a singer didn’t have a good voice but let me strip it of that disparaging whiff and sincerely pay her one of the best musical compliments I know: Michelle is an intelligent and subtle “song stylist,” making more meaning with her modest means than most belters do with their big brassy pipes. I really wish she’d do an album of jazz/pop.