The Commitments (Collector’s Edition)
October 3, 2002
Starring: Robert Arkins, Michael Aherne, Angeline Ball, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Dave Finnegan, Bronagh Gallagher, Félim Gormley, Glen Hansard, Dick Massey, Johnny Murphy, Kenneth McCluskey, Andrew Strong, Colm Meaney, Anne Kent, Andrea Corr, ,
Everyone wants to relive a magical cinematic moment. A film or theatre or evening that just makes one want to return in time. For me, one such experience was the first time I saw The Commitments (1991). It was a movie that spoke endless depths of sincerity both in spoken and sung dialogue. And I waited for what felt like forever to ever see it done justice, done proper, in any format.
Until, that is, this month, when I watched this glorious movie, available in 5.1 surround sound and anamorphic widescreen for the first time in America. And on a St. Patty’s day filled with a lackluster, nearly Irish-free programming, this one’s a keeper for the years to come.
Jimmy Rabbitte (Arkins) aspires to be the manager of the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band, with only one kind of music in mind: Soul. Disgusted with the current state of bands in Ireland, this determined young man decides to assemble an old school Dublin soul band in the tradition of greats like Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. Jimmy holds auditions out of his parents’ house (in which he still lives, by the by) and soon assembles his group of young musicians whom he can’t wait to mold. With the help of Joey “The Lips” Fagan (Murphy), the only veteran musician in the band, Jimmy begins to whip the rest of the members into stage-ready shape.
One of the things that makes The Commitments work so well is its brazen cast of relative unknowns. These actors come with no preconceived notions or baggage that name actors bring to the table (Bruce McDonald’s rock ‘n’ roll movie, Hard Core Logo, would also successfully employ the same technique). With the exception of two band members, they were all real musicians, lending the film fresh authenticity. Director Alan Parker showed his aptitude for working with first-time actors with Fame (1980) and does it again, more genuinely, with this film.
For such a large cast, all of the characters are beautifully realized. From the egotistical lead singer, Decco (Strong), to minor characters such as Jimmy’s Elvis-worshipping father (Meaney), Dick Clement, Ian Le Frenais and Roddy Doyle’s screenplay provides each character with his or her own unique character tics that define them. From Rabbitte’s colourful one-on-one interviews to Decco’s repugnant outbursts, the actors and their counterparts provide hit after hit.
The movie has been said to be a musical with dialogue intervals, due to the infusion of music everywhere. Everyone in the community is in touch with music. From the local gangster (“Everything’s shite since Roy Orbison died.”) to Mr. Rabbitte (Elvis wasn’t a Cajun! That’s fuckin’ blasphemy!), it’s in everyone. It is Jimmy who articulates the very essence that drives the film when he delivers an impassioned speech about the power of soul music. “Sure it’s basic and it’s simple but it’s something else. Something special. Cos it’s honest. There’s no fucking bullshit. It sticks its neck out and says it straight from the heart.”
What unites The Commitments’ band members, however, is really a bit more than a love of music. This band is a way out for them. It is a release for them. It is something that they can all look forward to, something that represents possibilities. Bernie, stuck working a chippie van, or Decco, the bus conductor-they’re all in need.
The dialogue, in particular the banter between the members of the band, is another strength of the movie. Their conversations are littered with ‘familiar profanities’ that are utterly convincing considering that these kids (the actors, that is) come from the urban slums of Dublin. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the film’s source material is Roddy Doyle’s book of the same name.
Finally, the best part of the film is the music. The concert footage (and its corresponding audio) was recorded live, which separates it from movies that use previously recorded music that always sounds too polished, too lip synched. There is a rawness and energy to the musical sequences that perfectly captures the experience of seeing a band live. This is due in large part to how the musicians perform, most surprisingly Andrew Strong, who was only 16 years old at the time and had a voice made to sing gritty soul music. It is also due to how Parker photographs them all. He uses snap zooms and employs many close-ups of their faces and them playing their instruments. It gives these sequences a you-are-there immediacy that is very effective. The lush lighting of each gig and rehearsal sequence really shines on this DVD, with a pristine print sure to enchant the viewer all over again.
On the first DVD, there is an audio commentary by director Alan Parker. There is very little dead air as he talks at length about the filmmaking process. Once he picked the members of the band, Parker had them learn 70 songs by heart and then narrowed them down to the ones that are in the movie. The veteran director admits that out of all of the films he has done this is the one he had the most fun making because he enjoyed working the cast of largely inexperienced actors.
The rest of the supplemental material can be found on the second DVD. First up is “The Making of Alan Parker’s The Commitments” featurette that was made at the time of the movie’s release. There are a lot of clips from the film with vintage footage of Parker seeing bands and reading with some of the people who would later star in the movie. The interview segments with Parker are good but this is still standard promotional material.
The best extra is a retrospective featurette entitled, “The Commitments: Looking Back.” This is a real treat for fans of the movie as most of the band was brought back for interviews conducted specifically for this DVD. It’s great to see what the cast looks like now and hear them talk fondly about their experiences on the movie.
Another extra created for the DVD is “Dublin Soul: The Working Class and Changing Face of Dublin.” It examines the socio-economical conditions of Ireland that informs the setting of the movie. This informative featurette also provides a historical context for the poor conditions that the characters in the movie inhabit.
The redundant “Making-Of featurette” is a shorter version of first Making-Of featurette.
Also included is a music video for “Treat Her Right” sung by Robert Arkins and backed by The Commitments. Arkins and Parker recorded brand new introductions for this extra and offer amusing recollections of the experience.
“Original Songs by Cast Members” features a song by Andrew Strong and one by Robert Arkins. Strong’s voice still sounds great (it’s surprising that he hasn’t tried to crack the US market) and Arkins’ track sounds very Beatles-esque.
There is also a theatrical trailer, six TV spots and four radio spots that show how the film was marketed to the US audiences at the time.
Finally, there is small collection of behind-the-scenes movie stills.
The Commitments refuses to resort to sappy altruism. This music isn’t going to save the world but it does enrich these characters’ lives for a brief moment in time. Apparently, other people felt the same way. After the movie debuted in theatres, the band in the movie actually toured (and continues to tour to this day albeit with only some of the original members) the country and people fell in love with the movie and the music. The Commitments ranks right up there with Hard Core