The Fabulous Baker Boys is a 1989 American romantic musical comedy-drama film written and directed by Steve Kloves and starring Jeff Bridges, Michelle Pfeiffer and Beau Bridges. It follows Jack and Frank Baker, two brothers struggling to make a living as lounge jazz pianists in Seattle. Desperate, they take on a female singer, Susie Diamond, who revitalizes their careers, causing the brothers to re-examine their relationship with each other and with their music.
The Fabulous Baker Boys was theatrically released on October 13, 1989 by 20th Century Fox. It received critical acclaim with major praise drawn towards Pfeiffer's performance but was a box office disappointment grossing $18.4 million on a $11.5 million budget.
The Fabulous Baker Boys, Jack (Jeff Bridges) and Frank (Beau Bridges), are brothers living in Seattle, making a living in lounges and music bars, their gimmick being that they play intricate jazz and pop-flavored duets on matching grand pianos. Frank handles the business aspect while Jack, single, attractive, and more talented as a player, feels disillusioned and bored with the often hackneyed material they use. Nonetheless, he is able to live a comfortable and responsibility-free existence because of Frank's management, sleeping where and with whom he pleases. Frank has a wife and family he adores, but Jack has no personal connections in his private life, other than Eddie, his soulful but aging Black Labrador, and Nina, the lonely child of a single mom living in his building, who walks Eddie and takes piano lessons from Jack. In all other respects, professionally and personally, Jack's life is a series of empty one-night stands. Now and again, he plays the challenging music he really cares about at a local jazz club.
Concerned over the way they keep losing gigs, the Baker Boys hold auditions for a female singer to join the outfit, ending up with the beautiful but eccentric Susie Diamond (Michelle Pfeiffer), a former escort with unusual charisma, a sultry singing voice, and emotional baggage she keeps well hidden most of the time. She's late for the audition, cockily irreverent of their professional reputation, and ticks Frank off by saying she's got an intuition he'll hire her anyway—but overcomes his reservations with her impassioned performance of "More Than You Know", with Jack accompanying her, clearly more impressed with Susie's singing (and Susie herself) than he wants to admit. After a rocky start, the new act becomes unexpectedly successful, leading to bigger gigs and better money, but Frank is worried that Jack will ruin it by sleeping with Susie, having noted the growing attraction between the two, and being well aware of his brother's effect on the opposite sex.
Jack and Susie circle each other warily from gig to gig, neither wanting to make the first move. In the meantime, the normally cool and emotionally distant Jack has a stark revelation of how fragile his world really is when Eddie has to spend the night at an animal hospital. He needs to have several teeth removed, a procedure that could easily kill the elderly dog, who is, Jack suddenly realizes, his only real friend in the world.
The now sought-after trio (and Eddie, still recovering from surgery) head out of town to play an extended engagement at a grand old-style hotel. Frank has to leave suddenly, when one of his kids has a minor accident. Without him to act as chaperone, Susie and Jack give in to their feelings after playing a sizzling duet of "Makin' Whoopee" at the hotel's New Year's Eve celebration. Susie opens up to Jack about her past at the escort service, sleeping with clients simply because they were nice to her. She tries to tell him how good a player he is, but he's unwilling to admit his regrets to her. The romance is uneasy and off-kilter from the start, and doesn't last long.
Back in Seattle, there is new tension within the act, as Frank senses what has happened between Jack and Susie. Both rebel against Frank's creative control, which has them performing crowd-pleasers like "Feelings" every night, instead of the jazz standards they prefer. After she spends the night with Jack at his apartment (leading to an embarrassing encounter with Nina), Susie reveals that at the hotel she got a lucrative offer from a man in the catfood business, to sing jingles for television, which would mean leaving The Baker Boys. She later takes the job when Jack, wounded she would even consider going (and thinking about the conventioneers she used to know as an escort), refuses to admit how he feels, and acts like her departure is of no concern. As a parting shot, she tells him he's selling himself on the cheap as much as she ever did, by working a cheesy lounge act instead of developing his talent.
Jack and Frank quarrel over Susie's departure and the increasingly embarrassing gigs Frank has been landing them. They get into a fight, with Jack nearly breaking Frank's fingers in frustrated rage, then storming off saying he can't pretend anymore. Jack later blows up at Nina, driving her away—but goes after her to apologize—and learns that she's getting a new stepdad, so he won't be such a big part of her life anymore.
Now ready to pursue the solo career his loyalty to Frank and delayed maturity had kept on the back burner, Jack goes to Frank's house to mend fences. Frank accepts Jack's decision to go his own way, and says he will switch to giving piano lessons at home—in his mind, he was simply helping his brother lead the carefree swinging single life that he secretly envied, and had thought Jack wanted. They reminisce happily about the early days of their act, and play a riotous chorus of "You're Sixteen", knowing now their connection is unbreakable, no matter what happens.
Jack goes to see Susie, who is not enjoying the jingle business much, to let her know he's sorry about the way he behaved. She isn't ready to give him another chance, but they part as friends, Jack telling her he's got an intuition they will see each other again (echoing her earlier prediction that the brothers would hire her for the act). She walks off to her job, with him watching until she's nearly out of sight. As the credits roll, the soundtrack plays Michelle Pfeiffer and Dave Grusin's interpretation of "My Funny Valentine".
- Jeff Bridges as Jack Baker
- Michelle Pfeiffer as Susie Diamond
- Beau Bridges as Frank Baker
- Ellie Raab as Nina
- Xander Berkeley as Lloyd
- Jennifer Tilly as Blanche "Monica" Moran
- Dakin Matthews as Charlie
- Ken Lerner as Ray
- Albert Hall as Henry
- Terri Treas as Girl in Bed
- Gregory Itzin as Vince Nancy
- Bradford English as Earl
- David Coburn as Kid at Vet
Steve Kloves wrote The Fabulous Baker Boys after his first script, Racing with the Moon (1984), was made into a motion picture. Three years after the screenplay was first acquired for production by Paula Weinstein, the picture was greenlighted by Gladden Entertainment and 20th Century Fox with Kloves directing.
Jeff Bridges was Kloves's first choice for the role of Jack Baker. "Jeff, for me, is like the old time actors who you never know are acting; he's seamless - you just never see him working at it." Jeff's brother, Beau Bridges, was then shown the script, although he admitted he was a "little reluctant since Jeff had initiated it and I didn't want anyone to feel that big brother had been forced upon them. By the time I'd finished reading the script, however, I would have killed to have done it." According to Kloves, "Beau has the most wonderful knack of making memorable moments out of simple gestures."
For the plum role of Susie Diamond, actresses such as Madonna, Debra Winger, Brooke Shields, Jodie Foster and Jennifer Jason Leigh were considered. Madonna was highly critical of the finished picture, calling it "too mushy". The role eventually went to Michelle Pfeiffer. Kloves was quoted as saying that "Michelle is the icing on the cake. Her Susie Diamond is right on the mark--and she is a wonderful singer. Michelle is an actress with unlimited range." Despite having already sung on screen in her cinematic début, Grease 2 (1982), Pfeiffer was never a professionally trained singer; she started taking voice lessons two months before filming commenced. Her vocal coach, Sally Stevens, commended her dedication: "She was singing these songs in a very exposed way--no strings or lush orchestrations to hide behind, just a piano. She worked ten hours a day in the studio and then took the tapes home with her to study them." In preparation for the most famous scene, a rendition of "Makin' Whoopee" atop a grand piano that took six hours to film, Pfeiffer only had one choreography lesson, and wore knee and elbow pads during rehearsals.
Composer and jazz pianist Dave Grusin dubbed Jeff Bridges's piano playing, while John F. Hammond dubbed Beau Bridges.
The Fabulous Baker Boys currently holds a rating of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 25 reviews, and holds a 6.7 rating on the Internet Movie Database. The film was released on October 13, 1989, in 858 theaters, grossing US$3.3 million in its opening weekend, before going on to make $18.4 million, above its $11.5 million budget.
Pauline Kael in The New Yorker wrote of the film as a "romantic fantasy that has a forties-movie sultriness and an eighties movie-struck melancholy. Put them together and you have a movie in which eighties glamour is being defined." Richard Schickel in Time called the film "a Hollywood rarity these days, a true character comedy... The wary way in which she [Susie] and Jack circle in on a relationship is one of the truest representations of modern romance that the modern screen has offered." Janet Maslin in The New York Times described it as a "film specializing in smoky, down-at-the-heels glamour, and in the kind of smart, slangy dialogue that sounds right without necessarily having much to say." Rita Kempley in the Washington Post wrote that "Kloves is a nostalgic young man whose passion for Ella Fitzgerald records, film noir and romantic melodrama mesh in this classic directorial début. The Fabulous Baker Boys is like a beloved movie from the glory days of Hollywood. It transports you. It's an American rhapsody." Time Out wrote that "with more than enough witty, well-observed details, it's a little charmer... understatement is crucial to the script's success."  Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times was of the opinion that "The Fabulous Baker Boys doesn't do anything very original, but what it does, it does wonderfully well."
The look and atmosphere of the film were highly praised. The New York Times wrote that the "warm, rich hues of Michael Ballhaus's cinematography contribute immeasurably to the film's invitingly intimate glow." Time thought that Steve Kloves and his "fine cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, have created a gently dislocating noirish mood - not quite menacing but not exactly comfortable either - and let it speak for itself. It is a setting where actors can live and breathe like real people." Desson Howe in the Washington Post wrote that "the man [Ballhaus] who, among many films, shot Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun, Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, James L. Brooks's Broadcast News and Mike Nichols's Working Girl, gives human skin a peachy glow, frames a seduction scene (involving back-caressing and parted lips) that's the next best thing to being there and, in what amounts to the visual zenith of the movie, paints a champagne-drinking balcony scene with appropriately moonlit intoxication."
Michelle Pfeiffer's performance drew rave reviews from almost every critic. The New York Times called her "as unexpected a choice for this musical bombshell as Jeff Bridges is for Jack, but, like him, she proves to be electrifyingly right... when Ms. Pfeiffer, draped across Jeff Bridges's piano and setting some new standard for cinematic slinkiness, performs in the above-mentioned New Year's Eve sequence with the camera gliding hypnotically around her, she just plain brings down the house." The Chicago Sun-Times wrote of this film as "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... Whatever she's doing while she performs that song ['Makin' Whoopee'] 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 New Yorker thought that she recalled "the grinning infectiousness of Carole Lombard, the radiance of the very young Lauren Bacall, and Pfeiffer herself in other movies." Time described her as "a cat with at least nine dimensions ever aflicker in her eyes." Variety wrote that "Pfeiffer hits the nail right on the head. She also hits the spot in the film's certain-to-be-remembered highlight - a version of 'Makin' Whoopee' that she sings while crawling all over a piano in a blazing red dress. She's dynamite." The Washington Post described her as "slinky and cynical, more Bacall than Bacall. Like the sun through a magnifying glass, she burns an image on the screen."
Jeff Bridges and his brother, Beau Bridges, were also acclaimed for their performances. Time thought that "the Bridges boys are better than fabulous in it - Jeff not quite falling over the line into unredeemable cynicism, Beau never succumbing to the pull of moral blandness." The New Yorker wrote that "Jeff Bridges has never been as glamorously beyond reach as he is here." The New York Times thought that "Beau Bridges also has a chance to shine." The Washington Post was of the opinion that "Jeff Bridges, lean, sexy and contemptuous, is more than up to it in this, his best work to date... Beau Bridges, all pudgy and wounded, makes a subtle villain of the fussy, guilt-inflicting Frank."
Michelle Pfeiffer's memorable rendition of "Makin' Whoopee", sprawled over a piano in a red evening dress, has been referenced and parodied numerous times, entering popular culture as an iconic image. Homages to this scene have appeared in the film Hot Shots! (starring the Bridges' father Lloyd Bridges) and episodes of Eureka, Ellen and Animaniacs.
Awards and nominations
Michelle Pfeiffer won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Motion Picture Drama, fending off competition from Sally Field, Jessica Lange, Andie MacDowell and Liv Ullmann. She also won numerous critics awards, including the National Board of Review Award for Best Actress, the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actress, the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress, the Chicago Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress. She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress and the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role, but lost both to Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy (1989).
Dave Grusin's soundtrack won the Grammy Award for Best Album of Original Instrumental Background Score, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score, the BAFTA Award for Best Original Film Score and the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score - Motion Picture. The film also won the BAFTA Award for Best Sound.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists: