25 years of Soul: Revisiting the Commitments
“Have you got Soul Brother”? It has been 25 years since Alan Parker’s The Commitments appeared on our cinema screens and charmed its way into our hearts. Comprised of unknown performers and set in working class Ireland, this adaptation of one of Roddy Doyle’s most famous works captured the brutal economic hardships of a post-recession Dublin but also the zest and exuberance of what it was like to be young and have a dream.
In 1991, Ireland had the youngest population in Europe and some of the highest unemployment. The Commitments depicted a gritty working class Dublin that up until this time was absent in Irish cinema. A lot has changed in the 25 years since the film’s initial release. Now a hugely successful West End Musical, the show has recently enjoyed several sell out shows here in Dublin. What better time for Film in Dublin to break down this Irish classic and see if it still has soul after all these years?
25 years on and the first thing that strikes you is just how human and relatable the performances are. The cast is stacked to the rafters with unknown, untested talent and this is easily the film’s secret weapon. Alan Parker wanted to make a movie first and foremost about the music and figured it was better to teach musicians to act then actors to be musicians. The gamble would pay off and after auditioning seemingly every person who could play an instrument he was able to select the final 12 band members. The casting is outstanding. They easily sell the musical performances and although some of the acting at times feels wooden, this only adds an additional level of humanity to the film. The formula of The Commitments would be repeated with the likes of The Full Monty or more recently, the Aussie film The Sapphires but these films were filled with actors and never manage to reach the same level of authenticity found here.
The biggest sensation at the time was of course Andrew Strong as the loud mouth Deco. It is hard watching the film to believe he is only 16 years of age. He brings so much confidence and bluster to his performance. It is a joy to simply watch his face contort as he belts out song after song. As the band’s success grows, he becomes more and more arrogant and he sells this cockiness easily while always remaining likable.
The rest of the cast are uniformly excellent and all get their moments to shine. Robert Arkins as band manager Jimmy Rabbitte brings a real earnestness to his performance. His pretend interviews where he dreams of future success are just the right level of cringeworthy, making you want to root for him even more. Be it Johnny Murphy’s Iconic Joey the Lips or Colm Meaney’s Elvis-obsessed Mr Rabbitte, every character is instantly iconic and watching them interact with each other is a pleasure. The top notch casting does not stop at just the main players. All the extras feel so perfectly cast and manage to make an impact in their flitting moments on screen.
The Commitments was one of the first mainstream Irish films to depict the urban landscape. Up until then international audiences depictions of Ireland have been always from romantic and quaint rural settings. The Quiet Man stood as the picture postcard of Ireland for decades until the late 80’s early 90’s. Films like Angel (1982) and Taffin (1988) portrayed a grittier, dirtier Ireland, but it was always against a rural background. Parker and his production designer made a conscious choice to distance themselves from the traditional portrait of Ireland. The Dublin depicted here is almost an alien landscape; the concrete streets are crowded with people trying to make a living or children playing. It all feels so lived in with every extra seemingly living out their own story. The scene where they get their picture amongst the rubble of a leveled building feels almost post-apocalyptic. The same can be said for the musty bars and town halls they play. It distinctive while never feeling artificial.
The soundtrack is iconic now, but in 1991 most of the 52 songs littered throughout the film were relatively unknown. Parker and his usic supervisor G. Marq Roswell set themselves the challenge of finding 60’s soul music that had not been featured in other films up until that point. The obvious standouts are “Mustang Sally” and “Try a Little Tenderness” which after the release of this film became instantly recognizable hits. The effectiveness of the song’s is aided by the cast using live vocals during the shoot. This brings a raw intensity to the performances, which has seldom been equaled since on film.
Parker at this point had such a varied career behind the camera. With Fame, Bugsy Malone and Pink Floyd: The Wall, he was no stranger to music on film, but with The Commitments, he wanted to push for a new way to portray music performances on film. Up until this, musicals and music videos used pre-recorded vocals when capturing performances. They then alternated the camera positioning and repeated the songs to capture the performance. Parker was determined to capture the spirit and energy of the creative process so he opted for a documentary style approach. All the musical performances are shot with multiple set ups, all recording simultaneously to capture live vocals. The resulting scenes bristle with raw energy that capture the highs and lows of the creative process.
Universally adored by critics both here and abroad the film was an unexpected box office smash in the USA. For a long time after rumours of a sequel persisted but it was never to be. Many of the cast would go on to forge successful acting and musical career’s (Glen Hansard, Andre Corr, Maria Doyle Kennedy) while others would return to touring with session bands. Few demonstrated a desire to persue acting full-time. Parker would continue directing for another 10 years, returning to music again for 1996’ Evita. We would revisit the universe of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy again on film with Stephens Frears directing both The Snapper and The Van. Both were incredibly popular but never reached the same dizzying heights of their cinematic predecessor.
The Commitments is a film so loved by Irish people and this is evidenced in the popularity of the recent stage performances. The film captured the changing landscape of Ireland and gave a voice to a generation of outsiders that had never been represented before. Incidentally, it took outsiders, an English born director, two English writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (Auf Weidersehen Pet) to capture that voice. It might be a film about Dubliners set in Dublin but its themes of hope and making it big are relatable anywhere in the world.