The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)

The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)

Frank and Jack Baker are professional musicians who play in small clubs. They perform cover tunes of music standards and have never needed a day job. Times are changing and dates are becoming more difficult to get so they interview female singers.

They finally decide on Susie Diamond, a former ‘escort’ who needs some refinement, but the act begins to take off again. While the act is now successful, both Frank and Jack have problems with their life on the road. Susie becomes the agent that makes them re-evaluate where they are going, and how honest they have been with each other.

The Fabulous Baker Boys is a 1989 American romantic comedy-drama musical film written and directed by Steve Kloves, and starring real life brothers Jeff Bridges and Beau Bridges as two brothers struggling to make a living as lounge jazz pianists in Seattle. In desperation, they take on a female singer, Michelle Pfeiffer, who revitalizes their careers, causing the brothers to re-examine their relationship with each other and with their music.

It was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Michelle Pfeiffer), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing and Best Music, Original Score. Film critic Roger Ebert described this film as “one of the movies they will use as a document, years from now, when they begin to trace the steps by which Pfeiffer became a great star.”

The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) - Michelle Pfeifffer

Film Review for The Fabulous Baker Boys

There is a scene in “The Fabulous Baker Boys” where Michelle Pfeiffer, wearing a slinky red dress, uncurls on top of a piano while singing “Makin’ Whoopee.” The rest of the movie is also worth the price of admission. Pfeiffer stars in the film with Jeff and Beau Bridges, who play the halves of a cocktail lounge piano duet. Their act is growing relentlessly more hopeless when they decide to liven things up by hiring a girl singer. The singer is Pfeiffer. Things liven up.

“The Fabulous Baker Boys” is a new version of an old show-biz formula about longtime partners whose relationship is threatened when one of them falls in love with the sexy new singer. “Young Man With a Horn” did a version of this material, and so have lots of other movies, but rarely with such intriguing casting and such a sure hand for the material. There’s probably some autobiographical truth lurking beneath the rivalry of the Bridges brothers, old wounds from the 20 years they have both been working in the movies. And Pfeiffer quite simply has one of the roles of a lifetime, as the high-priced call girl who wants to become a low-priced lounge singer.

The movie takes place in that shadowy area of show business where people make a living, even a fairly decent living, but they always seem to be marking time. Night after night, the Baker Boys sit down at their twin pianos in the lounges of fading Seattle supper clubs and pretentious motels and go through an act they could do in their sleep. The audience, drunks in search of melancholy, doesn’t even bother to listen.

The problem is, the Baker Boys are getting dated. They’re doing tired material and arrangements that sound like elevator music. And the jobs aren’t coming their way anymore. Deciding to add a singer to the act, they conduct a long series of auditions, during which they meet nearly every woman in town who should not consider a singing career. And then Pfeiffer walks in.

The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)

She’s not an experienced singer. She doesn’t quite know how to handle herself, or her voice. But she has that ineffable vocal quality that causes people to listen, because they might be missing something. And she looks like a million bucks. She has been a hooker, yes, but we know from a hundred other movies that she has a good heart, and that the tough come-on is all an act.

Working with the girl singer, the Baker Boys begin to play real music again. This reopens an old wound. Jack Baker (Jeff Bridges) is, in fact, a brilliant jazz pianist, who has turned his back on the music he loves out of some twisted love-hate loyalty to his brother, Frank (Beau Bridges). Frank handles the business side of the partnership and could easily go through the same hackneyed act night after night for years. So the girl inevitably comes between them. And Jack inevitably falls in love with her.

“The Fabulous Baker Boys” doesn’t do anything very original, but what it does, it does wonderfully well. It was written and directed by a first-timer, Steve Kloves, and even though the screenplay depends on formulas, we begin to forget that. We begin to care about these people, especially when the relationship between the brothers turns inward and they start looking hard at what they both really need from life.

This is one of the movies they will use as a document, years from now, when they begin to trace the steps by which Pfeiffer became a great star. I cannot claim that I spotted her unique screen presence in her first movie, which, I think, was “Grease II,” but certainly by the time she made “Ladyhawke” and “Tequila Sunrise” and “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Married to the Mob,” something was going on. This is the movie of her flowering – not just as a beautiful woman, but as an actress with the ability to make you care about her, to make you feel what she feels.

All of those qualities are here in this movie, and so is the “Makin’ Whoopee” number, which I can only praise by adding it to a short list: Whatever she’s doing while she performs that song isn’t merely singing; it’s whatever Rita Hayworth did in “Gilda” and Marilyn Monroe did in “Some Like It Hot,” and I didn’t want her to stop.

The Fabulous Baker Boys Movie Poster (1989)

The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)

Directed by: Steve Kloves
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Michelle Pfeiffer, Beau Bridges, Ellie Raab, Xander Berkeley, Ken Lerner, Albert Hall, Terri Treas, Nancy Fish, Gregory James
Screenplay by: Steve Kloves
Production Design by: Jeffrey Townsend
Cinematography by: Michael Ballhaus
Film Editing by: William Steinkamp
Costume Design by: Lisa Jensen
Set Decoration by: Anne H. Ahrens
Music by: Dave Grusin
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Release Date: October 13, 1989