Home Video Hovel: The Commitments, by West Anthony
I don’t think people ever fully appreciated what a great big weirdo Alan Parker was as a filmmaker. Before packing it in with The Life Of David Gale in 2003, Parker seemed to make great sport of confusing his constituency by shifting between rather dark cinematic fare – Midnight Express, Mississippi Burning, Angela’s Ashes – and musicals. (Pink Floyd The Wall managed to be both.) Very few of his contemporaries attempted even one musical (Martin Scorsese, John Huston and Woody Allen did; Francis Ford Coppola and Richard Attenborough each managed two) – Parker made five. In the golden age of Hollywood that might not be considered a big deal, but five musicals in this day and age is nearly unheard of; that’s two more than Rob Marshall OR Bob freakin’ Fosse, for heaven’s sake. And although it may not be considered a beloved classic like Fame, and it may not have quite the cult status of Pink Floyd The Wall, Parker’s 1991 adaptation of the Roddy Doyle novel The Commitments is definitely his most feisty, his most foul-mouthed, and just maybe his most relatable to a new generation of viewers growing up in our present era of limited upward mobility and DIY determination.
Unlike John Carney’s recent musical Sing Street, which has a more fanciful, idealistic adolescent perspective that is only slightly leavened by its more realistic elements, The Commitments is squarely grounded in a gritty, dismal, working-class environment that feels so dead-end and strangled that starting a band as a nothing-to-lose act of defiance in the face of desperation makes all the sense in the world. Maybe that’s why the first act feels like The Dirty Dozen with better music. Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) is a manager in search of a band to lead to fortune and glory; to that end, he auditions seemingly the entire population of Dublin before settling on ten likely lads and lasses he dubs The Commitments, and commits with evangelical zeal to transforming them into a premiere Irish R&B outfit. Parker, in league with scenarists Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais and Roddy Doyle, charts the rise and fall of the band as they claw their way toward greatness – with ever-more improved, more polished musical performances – before succumbing to petty jealousies and their own weaknesses and flaws… sort of like The Replacements, with marginally less drinking and swearing.
Everyone in the picture is solid but the film is anchored by a quartet of standout performances: Arkins is great as the single-minded leader determined to carve a path to fame with his ragtag combo; Andrew Strong is the arrogant, uncouth lead singer who only unites the band in their hatred for him; Bronagh Gallagher is the most potty-mouthed of the backup singers and perhaps the one who needs the band the most to stave off an oppressive home life; and Johnny Murphy is the soul of the group, a high priest of music who claims to have played with real R&B giants and may even be telling the truth. Speaking of Sing Street, Maria Doyle (now Maria Doyle Kennedy), who plays the mother of that film’s protagonist, made her acting debut here as another of the backup singers; and Glen Hansard, future Oscar winner for his work in John Carney’s breakout film Once, also makes his film debut as the band’s guitarist, a fact that sailed right over my head in the past despite my enjoyment of all of these movies. (In a perfect world, Hansard’s immortal line “Fuck me! I just seen Imelda Quirke’s arse comin’ down a ladder!” will be engraved upon his tombstone. Maybe he wouldn’t care for it, but who asked him?)
If there is any serious impediment to total enjoyment of the picture, it is the existence of R&B itself and the availability of decades of the stuff at one’s fingertips on the internet. Some of the singing in the film is very good – I’ve always felt that Andrew Strong was overrated as a soul shouter (his performance tics remind me not so much of Joe Cocker but more of John Belushi’s Cocker impersonation on Saturday Night Live), but all of the women, particularly Maria Doyle, have lovely voices. However, none of these people are Otis Redding or Aretha Franklin, and you would have to be run over by a Zamboni for this movie to make you forget about them. And the scene in which several of the band members are watching James Brown’s incendiary appearance in The TAMI Show just makes me want to go and watch THAT film instead, which wasn’t available in the US in 1991, but it sure is now.
The new 25th anniversary Blu-ray is, surprisingly, the film’s high-definition debut and it looks and sounds plenty spiffy; it’s also loaded with extras, although nearly all of them were originally on Fox’s special edition DVD from about a dozen years ago. (It’s kind of quaint to listen to Alan Parker mildly railing about pan-and-scan home video presentation now that the aspect-ratio wars are long over.) The only new addition is a brief retrospective with comments from Parker, Hansard and a couple of other actors. The Commitments itself is, of course, the main attraction here, and those who consider it “one of the finest rock & roll movies ever made”, as the cover blurb states, are not wrong. It may not erase one’s memories of the immortal soul music of Motown, Stax/Volt, Atlantic, Chess and suchlike but it will always appeal to those who understand the power of rock and roll, its ability to transport you away from your humdrum world and into a better one, if only for the span of a three-minute single; and it is a fitting tribute to the legions of dreamers who picked up an instrument and battled impossible odds to make their rock and roll dreams come through.