Alan Parker, who juggled genres and celebrated music with hits such as “Bugsy Malone”, “The Commitments” and “Evita”, died on Friday at the age of 76.British film director, producer and writer Alan Parker (L) poses with his BAFTA fellowship award during the annual BAFTA British Academy Film Awards in 2013
The British director, whose films have won 10 Oscars and 10 Golden Globes, also explored US race relations with “Mississippi Burning” and chilled audiences with the film noir “Midnight Express”.
The US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences called Parker “an extraordinary talent”.
“His work entertained us, connected us, and gave us such a strong sense of time and place,” it said in a tweet, calling him “a chameleon” for his ability to change with the times.
Andrew Lloyd Webber called Parker “one of the few directors to truly understand musicals on screen”.
His family said he died “following a lengthy illness”.
– Modest beginnings –
The son of a north London house painter and dressmaker, Parker first tried his hand at writing and directing commercials.
He made his first film for the BBC before blossoming in the 1970s with a rapid succession of standout hits, starting with the 1976 gangster musical spoof “Bugsy Malone”.
Its cast of children included a 16-year-old Scott Baio in the lead as an Irish-Italian boxer, and Jodie Foster as a gangster moll. She was then just 13 but already had seven films to her name.
The film got critics’ attention. “Midnight Express”, a dark Oliver Stone scripted thriller about a US student who was thrown into a Turkish prison for drug smuggling, got Parker his first Oscar nomination.
He followed that up in 1980 with the genre-setting American teen musical drama “Fame”, which was spun off into a popular US TV series and led to other musical dance films.
Parker shifted gears completely with “Pink Floyd — The Wall”, whose dark themes and powerful imagery helped build up the British rock group into superstars in 1982.
“Alan was my oldest and closest friend, I was always in awe of his talent,” said fellow British film director David Puttnam, who produced some of Parker‘s movies.
“My life and those of many others who loved and respected him will never be the same again.”
– Controversy –
Parker moved from exploring music to asking questions about US treatment of African-Americans in the Deep South in the 1960s with the 1988 drama “Mississippi Burning”.
The film, which was based on the FBI’s investigation into the disappearance of three civil rights leaders, was a critical and commercial success.
But it also created controversy and an unexpected political debate.
Some US civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr’s widow Corette Scott King,condemned it for fictionalising events and portraying the FBI too positively.
The head of the NAACP, the leading US civil rights organisation, said “it reeks with dishonesty”.
Parker stood by his work, but admitted that he never expected the backlash.
“I was somewhat bemused by it all — and a little punch-drunk,” Parker wrote on his official website.
“It certainly wasn’t intended to be the definitive story of the black Civil Rights struggle.”
The film won just one Oscar, for cinematography, after being nominated for seven.
– Cult status –
But Parker’s career did not suffer. The director returned to his musical roots with the 1991 musical comedy drama “The Commitments”, based on the novel by the Irish writer Roddy Doyle.
The film gained cult status and became especially celebrated in Ireland itself.
“I have not had a more enjoyable time filming than when I made this movie in the daily, hilarious company of these brilliant kids,” Parker recalled on his website.
“Probably of all my films, ‘The Commitments’ is the most liked — particularly by critics.”
Parker‘s last major success came with the 1996 musical drama “Evita”, in which Madonna played Argentina’s late first lady Eva Peron.
The adaptation of Lloyd Webber’s stage show won three Golden Globes and an Oscar for best original song.
Parker retired soon afterwards, spending the last years of his life painting. He was knighted in 2002.
The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) said it was “deeply saddened” by the news.
James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli said she was “heartbroken”.