Sometimes, a movie captures a moment in your life, holding still as you glide past it. I first saw “The Fabulous Baker Boys” in 1989, when Seattle and I were a lot younger than we are now, and I remember how it left me feeling dazzled and glamorous, its slinky piano music wrapping itself around me like a borrowed, coveted scarf. Decades later, it still gives me that feeling; it’s a movie that seems to bring its own perfume.
Filmed in the Seattle-movie prime of the late ’80s (it shares a birth year with “Say Anything,” which is not really a Seattle movie, but that’s another story) and celebrating its 30th birthday this month, “The Fabulous Baker Boys” is something they don’t really make any more: a big-studio, big-movie-star romantic drama that’s all grown-up emotions and dreamy, aching atmosphere.
Written and directed by Steve Kloves, who later achieved greater fame by scripting the “Harry Potter” movies, it stars the real-life Bridges brothers, Jeff and Beau, as the Baker boys of the title: a longtime, schmaltzy two-piano act, playing old standards for slightly soused Seattle nightclub audiences. Jack (Jeff Bridges), more talented and less focused than his older brother Frank (Beau Bridges), could do better but can’t be bothered. Along comes Susie Diamond (a mesmerizing, radiant Michelle Pfeiffer), an escort and would-be singer who joins the act — and becomes, unintentionally, a wedge between the brothers.
If you remember nothing else about this movie (where were you in ’89?), you might know its central scene: Pfeiffer, in a red-velvet dress, writhing on top of a grand piano played by Jack, singing — or, rather, breathing — “Makin’ Whoopee.” Frank, the old-school control freak of the trio (he’s always, hilariously, nagging Jack about smoking or tidiness), has decamped due to a family emergency, leaving Jack and Susie — who’ve been eyeing each other like a forbidden dessert — to their own devices for a big New Year’s Eve show. Pfeiffer makes it a celebration of movie-star charisma — she seems impossibly beautiful, purring the dusty lyrics and making them into sexy poetry. If you can tear your eyes from her, watch Bridges during the scene: Jack, a jazz musician at heart who’s sick of being a lounge entertainer, grins irresistibly at the keys; he knows the question she’s asking, and later — in an empty, balloon-strewn ballroom where confetti has settled like snow, answers it.
What’s so refreshing about “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” though, is that the real love story isn’t between Jack and Susie. Bridges and Pfeiffer have a steamy chemistry, but the characters are both such hard-boiled loners that you leave the film not sure if they have a future. They’re not sure either, though the final scene’s dialogue hints that they do; the last shot is Pfeiffer walking away from Bridges, as he looks on.
More solid, and quietly central, is the bond between Jack and Frank. Though Jack needs to reject Frank in order to move on with his life and play the music that matters to him, he also needs his brother to be OK. The two have a perfect scene near the end of the film, in Frank’s wood-paneled basement (he lives in suburban coziness, in stark contrast to Jack’s grubby flat): Jack tentatively, but with more vulnerability than we’ve seen from him, offers apologies for a quarrel; Frank tells us, without saying it, that it’s been rough being big brother to a more talented and better-looking sibling; and the two of them affirm that the piano act is over but the brother act remains. In an earlier version of Kloves’ screenplay available online, the film ended not on Jack and Susie but on that scene; it feels right.
The movie, though, has a fourth main character: Seattle itself. Though most of the interiors were filmed in Los Angeles, the production traveled here to shoot a number of scenes with the cast. Though locals laughed a bit at Jack taking a stroll through Pike Place Market at sundown and mysteriously emerging at Ivar’s on the waterfront (well, you can get there from there, but it’s a bit of a hike), this film uses Seattle artfully. It looks both lushly romantic — those colored lights sparkling in the nighttime rain make downtown look like a jewel box — and a little gritty; this is pre-tech Seattle, when a freelance musician could theoretically afford a crumbling Pioneer Square apartment with gorgeous views. There’s a blue-lit nighttime shot of ferries that seems otherworldly, an unexpectedly poignant peek of the viaduct, a brief tour of Belltown (the apartment building on First and Vine, where Jack wakes up in the film’s opening sequence, still stands but now looks a lot more upscale), and a reminder that the south entrance of what’s now the Fairmont Olympic Hotel, here called the Starlite, hasn’t changed a bit.
And there’s that final scene, in which Jack and Susie talk on the sidewalk, tentatively making up and, maybe, moving forward. It’s the corner of 15th and Pine on Capitol Hill (you can see the street sign in the shot), and I went there a few weeks ago, curious to stroll that same sidewalk. In the movie, it looks scruffy and passed-by; now it’s completely transformed, with virtually nothing there that stood 30 years ago. You can’t see the Space Needle anymore, as Jack and Susie could; it’s now a fairly generic-looking corner full of condo buildings, none of which Susie could imagine living in.
Movies stay in place; cities and people move on. “The Fabulous Baker Boys” is now a time capsule, for Seattle and for me. I watch it and remember that I once bought an oversized coat like the one Pfeiffer wore in the film, hoping it might give me that offhand, funky glamour she conveyed. (Older and wiser now, I think it had more to do with the cheekbones.) The movie, though not the coat, has stayed with me for all these years; even now, I sometimes find myself humming “Makin’ Whoopee,” or thinking of Jack and Susie as I stroll down a downtown sidewalk at dusk.
Sometimes, what you remember of a movie is something you can’t quite put your finger on; it’s the way it made you feel, a sudden whiff of younger days, wrapped in flickering images on screen. Seattle and I aren’t the same anymore, but “The Fabulous Baker Boys” — elegantly and forever frozen in time — reminds us of who we were.