DIRECTED by Alan Parker
PRODUCED by Lynda Myles & Roger Randall-Cutler
WRITTEN by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, & Roddy Doyle
BASED ON A NOVEL by Roddy Doyle
MUSIC by The Commitments
CINEMATOGRAPHY by Gale Tattersall
PRODUCTION DESIGN by Brian Morris
The Commitments is an artificial band. They were assembled for this picture from the musical and acting talent in Dublin; none of them had been a big star before this, though a few continued on in musical careers afterwards. In that, they were like The Monkees, the Blues Brothers, Spinal Tap … even, in a sense, Peter, Paul, and Mary, who were joined by a folk music promoter.
I don’t care what anyone says about Belushi and Aykroyd not paying their dues or shite like that. They were very good. And though it’s rock ‘n’ roll heresy to say it, The Monkees had some damn good numbers. (Did you know that Stephen Stills almost made the final cut? Think how that would have changed the history of rock!) Spinal Tap has been on several successful tours, and they’re good enough at the crap they do that there are probably still fans out there who don’t get the joke.
The Commitments were flat-out good. So good they are a little bit frightening, and cause me to reflect on just how much talent there is out there in the wide world, people who are as good as or better than acts that are filling stadiums, but who never got the right break, or who don’t have the stage presence or (these days) sexy good looks to make a musically bereft but visually arresting video.
Alan Parker is a quirky filmmaker. He’s made one movie I’d call ill-advised (Bugsy Malone) one I’d call dishonest (Mississippi Burning), one I just hated (The Life of David Gale), a good but neglected musical (Evita) … and one of the best kick-ass musicals of all time (Fame). Put those all together and they spell … what? A guy who makes what he likes, is what I’d say. There isn’t any “Alan Parker” movie, they’re all over the place. Think about these other titles by him: The Road to Wellville, Come See the Paradise, Angel Heart, Birdy, Shoot the Moon, Midnight Express. Every one well worth seeing, all completely different. Asked to find someone to compare him to, I’d pick the late, much-lamented Robert Altman, who died two days ago as I write this.
The motley crew (hey, there’s a good name for a band!) that will become The Commitments is assembled by Jimmy Rabbitte from the odds and ends of North Dublin, and they are going to play … soul music! The rationale is impeccable: “The Irish are the blacks of Europe, and Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and North Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin.” Works for me. He gets them together to rehearse in an attic over a pool hall, and they stink. But everybody stinks when they start out. They get better. They play an anti-drug concert at a local church in front of a banner that reads “HEROINE KILLS,” with the final E hastily rubbed out. They’re not half bad. All of them are competent, but there is one genius aboard, “Deco” Cuffe, the lead singer. I kid you not, fellow R&B lovers, this kid ranks up there with the best white soul shouters of all time, as good as Joe Cocker, as good as Janis Joplin. (The guy who plays him, Andrew Strong, you’d swear he’s in his late 20s. He’s 16!) Deco has one problem: he is a total and complete jerk. No one in the band can stand him. But they begin to make a name, they’re packing pubs, and one night Wilson Pickett has promised to drop by and listen. Before he can get there, the band gives a performance that ranks as a triumph. I was stomping and almost shouting as they absolutely own “Try a Little Tenderness,” “Mustang Sally,” and half a dozen others.
And at the peak of their powers, at the moment of perfection, like a zillion bands before them … they fall apart in personal squabbling.
Some critics didn’t like this, but I found it to be achingly true-to-life. For one brief shining moment they were on top of the world. Those moments usually don’t last. In a standard Hollywood movie they’d have continued to rise, had hits, won Grammys. This was so much more honest, and in a very strange way, satisfying. Life goes on.
Alan Parker went about making this movie in much the same way Jimmy Rabbitte did. He insisted on no musical stars. (Van Morrison was approached at one point, but I’m relieved to say, hated the music. Probably because none of it was his.) He auditioned a lot of people who hadn’t acted before but could sing or play, and then … practice, practice, practice. All the music on the soundtrack is by The Commitments, they all sing or play their own stuff (except, I’m pretty sure, the trumpet player). This adds immeasurably to the feeling of realism.
The Commitments is, quite simply, the best movie I know about the making of music, the passion of it and the heartbreak of working hard and having it come to nothing … in terms of success. But they’ll always have that one magical night when everything cooked and the crowd went wild.