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Would It Be Dublin?

March 1st, 2009 · 3 Comments

The Commitments (1991)
Screenplay by Roddy Doyle and Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais, based on the novel by Roddy Doyle
Directed by Alan Parker
Produced by Dirty Hands Productions/ Beacon Communications
Running time: 118 minutes

The Commitments 1991 poster The Commitments DVD cover

Synopsis
Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) – a peddler of bootleg tapes who lives with his family in the housing projects on the north side of Dublin – is approached by his friends Outspan (Glen Hansard, guitar) and Derek (Kenneth McCluskey, bass) to take over management of their band. “You had the Frankie Goes to Hollywood album before anyone had ever heard of ‘em. And you were the first to realise they were shite,” Outspan tells him. Jimmy accepts and announces they’re going to be playing “Dublin soul.” His musical aspirations are ribbed by Jimmy Rabbitte Sr. (Colm Meaney), but Jimmy’s newspaper ad brings every musical wanna-be in the neighborhood to the Rabbitte home for auditions. Dean (Félim Gormley, sax), Billy (Dick Massey, drums), Steven (Michael Aherne, piano) and a bus conductor Jimmy heard belting out drunken tunes at a wedding named Declan Cuffe (Andrew Strong) join the band.

Imelda Quirke (Angeline Ball), the most beautiful girl in town, and her friends (Bronagh Gallagher, Maria Doyle Kennedy) are enlisted as backup singers. The final piece becomes a trumpet player named Joey “The Lips” Fagan (Johnny Murphy). Old enough to be their dad, Joey wins over the kids by claiming to have jammed with everyone from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to Otis Redding to The Beatles. Joey christens their band The Commitments. Tensions arise when Declan develops a star sized ego, the girls seduce Joey the Lips one at a time, and Billy quits before he kills their lead singer. Jimmy replaces the drummer with a skinhead named Mickah Wallace (Dave Finnegan), a psycho who earns a promotion from the band’s doorman. As The Commitments build a local following, Joey promises he can deliver Wilson Pickett – in town performing – to jam with them at their next gig. Stardom appears inevitable.

The Commitments 1991

Production history
In the mid-1980s Roddy Doyle was teaching secondary school (high school) in the Kilbarrack neighborhood of north Dublin, where he’d grown up. He’d written a satiric novel called Your Granny’s A Hunger Striker that publishers he’d submitted it to didn’t even bother opening. Kicking around ideas for a better book, Doyle recalled, “I decided I wanted to write about the type of kids I taught and had become charmed by, really, and whose company I enjoyed, who are typical of the type of place I came from. I didn’t want it to be a school story. I wanted to see them a few years after they would leave school, still young, but adult. Forming a band just struck me as being a good excuse to bring them together. It could have been a football team because I’m also very fond of football, but I can’t see football being funny – or amusing on paper. Also, it would have been restricted to one sex.”

Launching what he dubbed King Farouk Press in 1987, Doyle printed 3,000 copies of The Commitments, dispersed them to local bookstores and built a cult following in Dublin. London publishing firm Heinemann picked up the rights and published the novel to critical and commercial success. It was so well received that interest in a movie began to filter in. Doyle recalls, “They said they loved the book and the first thing they do before your arse is warm on the seat is to tell you how to pull it apart and give it a happy ending. I was kind of frightened by this. I’d two questions I put to would-be producers and Lynda Myles was the only one to answer them correctly. Would the film have stars, because it didn’t seem to make sense to have stars in a film about unknown people? She agreed. I asked then would the language remain intact; not necessarily the expletives but the rhythm of the language, would it be Dublin? And she said yeah, of course.”

The Commitments 1991 Angeline Ball Robert Arkins

London based producer Lynda Myles recalls, “One of the things that was very important to him was he would be allowed to write the script. He wasn’t interested in signing away the rights. And what we agreed was we would start working with him and take it as far as we could go – given that he had never written a screenplay before.” While Doyle kept his day job teaching in Kilbarrack, Myles and her partner Roger Randall Cutler coached the novelist through the finer art of screenplay adaptation, instructing Doyle how to condense scenes. Their patience produced a completed draft, but Cutler admitted, “It somehow was just a wee bit short of the experience of reading the novel. One wanted to have a screenplay that did that and more, if you like.” The producers passed the book to British screenwriters Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais for help.

Dick Clement recalls, “Roger had shown it to us in London. We came back to Los Angeles. We thought we had money to develop movies, had lunch with Alan Parker just to sort of talk about what we were all doing, which we did fairly often. He said, ‘I’d like to do it.’ We called Roger Randall Cutler and said, ‘Now, this will make it more expensive, and it will probably become Alan’s movie, not yours, but at the end of it you’ll have an Alan Parker movie, which is pretty tempting. It took some convincing that this was actually for real. I mean, you can’t blame him, because these things don’t normally happen that way.” In terms of their rewrite, Ian La Frenias added, “It wasn’t a punch-up job. It needed to be rethought to just as a film. And I think Roddy – there was all that wonderful dialogue and characters – but it just had to be retold in a form that made a more dramatic and that more actually happened and there were bigger beats and the growth and the development of the band and their characters.”

The Commitments 1991 Felim Gormley Johnny Murphy

Alan Parker – director of Fame, Pink Floyd: The Wall and Mississippi Burning – remembers, “The first time I heard about Roddy Doyle’s book was Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais – who are old friends of mine and are quite wonderful writers – they gave me the book. And I loved the book, for a number of reasons. First of all, it was a very slim volume. And I found myself laughing out loud. It’s a wonderful book because it’s mostly dialogue and all of the descriptions really are in the beauty of language, and if you’re laughing out loud at a book then you think to yourself, ‘Well, maybe the movie’d be all right.'” With the principals of Beacon Communications – Armyan Bernstein and Tom Rosenberg – locking down financing, Parker worked with Clement & La Frenais on the screenplay adaptation. Once a script was ready, casting convened in Dublin.

Andrew Strong (Deco) was discovered after his father – vocalist Rob Strong – was hired to give Parker an idea of what Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett were going to sound like interpreted by an Irish soul band. Strong was 16 when he was offered the part. Robert Arkins was an accomplished trumpet player and frontman of his own band, but was ultimately was offered the part of Jimmy Rabbitte. Of the ten leads, only Bronagh Gallagher (Bernie) and Johnny Murphy (Joey the Lips) had acted before. After five weeks of rehearsals, a 53-day shooting schedule commenced in Dublin. Parker recalls, “Barrytown – which is the mythical place where Roddy has set his book – obviously was based on Kilbarrack, where Roddy was a schoolteacher. And I just found it cinematically a little dull, Kilbarrack, I have to admit.” Parker ended up shooting the film in 44 different locations spread throughout Dublin.

The Commitments 1991

Opening August 1991, critics in the U.S. did anything but applaud The Commitments. Janet Maslin, the New York Times: “As in his earlier Fame, Mr. Parker immerses his audience in a world in which popular art amounts to a communal high, a means of achieving identity and a great escape from the abundant problems of everyday life. As in Fame, he does this with a mixture of annoying glibness and undeniable high-voltage style.” Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun Times: “Parker never promises us a profound human drama here, and the band is so good that maybe music was the best way to go. But I was left with sort of an empty feeling, as if after the characters were developed into believable people, Parker couldn’t find anywhere to go with them.” Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: “Parker gives Dublin’s poverty the same misplaced gloss he brought to the Japanese refugee camps in Come See the Paradise. And the predictable way in which the band’s nine men and three women argue about music, sex and fame robs the story of urgency.”

The Commitments only managed $14.9 million at the box office in the U.S., and while the film swept the British Academy Awards in 1992, it notched only one Oscar nomination, for Best Editing (Gerry Hambling). A decade after its release, Parker mused, “This film really was quite inexpensive to make for its time. I think it cost $12 million and bear in mind that all the music was done within that budget, and recorded and everything. And it’s the kind of film, I suppose it’s the music which gives it its chance of success as a movie, particularly in the United States, which is, you know, audiences in the States are not really very tolerant of films that are not filmed in the American language. The Irish accent could have been difficult; I don’t think it’s that difficult to follow.” In addition to winning many fans on home video, The Commitments did become a sensation as a two-volume soundtrack album. By 2008, the CDs had sold 12 million copies worldwide.

The Commitments 1991

The popularity of the soundtrack has enabled Kenneth McCluskey and Dick Massey to tour the world with a band calling themselves The Stars of The Commitments. Glen Hansard – who performs and records with his band The Frames – returned to acting in Once (2007) and won an Academy Award for Best Original Song with Markéta Irglová. Soundtrack sales remained brisk enough to get the attention of Miramax Films. In 2000, the studio flew playwright Warren Leight to Dublin to sound out a sequel. But according to McCluskey, “Miramax bought the rights to make a sequel, they commissioned a script writer and he came to Dublin. We got him very drunk and sent him back to New York with a hangover, but nothing ever happened.” Roddy Doyle has maintained that he has no interest whatsoever in a Commitments reunion. “It’s a better story if they break up. I don’t think it would be as enjoyable if they went on became the biggest band in the world.”

The Commitments 1991 Robert Arkins Andrea Corr Kenneth McCluskey Glen Hansard Felim Gormley Dick Massey

Opinion
The Commitments is one of those special movies that just hit at the right place and right time. Within a few short years, construction cranes and venture capital would have made a film about a working class band on the skids in Dublin laughable. But in either a stroke of genius, case of first timer’s luck, or both, the movie caught everyone involved at the peak of their creativity. The audience gets to experience lighting in a bottle in what is probably the most entertaining movie I’ve ever seen featuring actors I’d never heard of. Roddy Doyle’s source material has a sharp ear for the vernacular of the north side of Dublin, but more importantly, contains a self-depreciating wit that slashes through the cheesy melodrama of the musical genre. Jimmy Rabbitte Sr. – an absentee character in the novel – acts as a partial observer in the movie, bringing even greater doses of humor and vitality to the story.

Alan Parker belongs to a class of British directors whose commercials won lots of citations in the 1970s, but unlike most of his films, The Commitments is focused on its characters, its dialogue and its ideals as opposed to lighting effects or trick editing. And unlike a lot of shitty musicals (or worse, American Idol) the emphasis here isn’t on how music can transform you into a superstar, but on what music can do for your dignity. Music supervisor G. Marq Roswell is one of many who deserve credit along with Parker for the four-star soundtrack. The Commitments’ versions of “Mustang Sally”, “Slip Away” and “Try A Little Tenderness” have stood up against the original recordings by Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter and Otis Redding. The amateur cast is equal parts energetic and natural, particularly Robert Arkins, whose self-conducted interviews in the tub should resonate with anyone who ever dreamed of rising above their surroundings.

© Joe Valdez

The Commitments 1991 Robert Arkins

Sources
“Something of a Hero: An Interview with Roddy Doyle” By Karen Sbrockey. Interview Literary Review, Summer 1999

“When Roddy Met Trudy” By Ciaran Carty. Sunday Tribune, February 25, 2001

The Commitments. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment (2004)

Tags: Based on novel · Bathtub scene · Brother/sister relationship · Concert · Cult favorite · Drunk scene · Father/son relationship · Master and pupil · Music · Train

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Pat Evans // Mar 2, 2009 at 4:31 am

    Yes, a cheerful make-em-smile movie. Great things were predicted at the time for some of the leads but despite the best-selling soundtrack, I don’t think there have been any real breakout stories. I thought Andrew Strong might make it, but he seems to have disappeared from the scene.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Mar 2, 2009 at 10:48 pm

    Patricia: It doesn’t surprise me that none of the cast members went onto super stardom. That’s not a knock against any of them, because I love this flick, but it was either lightning in a bottle, or a fluke, however you want to look at it. I haven’t even read anything Roddy Doyle has written that is as funny or insightful as this book. Fortunately, all involved can go around 20 years later and say they did The Commitments. Thanks for commenting!

  • 3 Bill Lynch // Mar 17, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    Nice synopsis. One tiny correction, 2nd paragraph “Joey promises he can deliver Wilson Pickett – in town performing – to jam with them at their next gig.”

    Joey promises he can deliver Percy Sledge…

    Never mind. Roddy Doyle in 2007/2008 published “The Deportees and other stories” with the title story being “a sequel, sort of, to The Commitments” (R.D.) that finds Jimmy Rabbitte masterminding a multiethnic revival band reflecting the new face of immigrants in Ireland featuring Woody Guthrie music. For his efforts he receives threatening phonecalls. Jimmy R. has aged some, but his game hasn’t. Well worth the read.

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