As the title suggests, this film sets out to be a very different form of rock musical spearheaded by Richard Lester and parodied by Ken Russell. If the picture has a spiritual cousin, it’s Franc Roddam’s excellent Quadrophenia, detailing the trials of the working-class movement. Indeed, director Alan Parker goes even further than Roddam and plunges viewers right into the heart of the council houses that serve as sanctity and dwelling for the job-searching musicians in a country that prioritises art over commerce. We find Jimmy Rabbitte in the middle of his transformation, as he abandons any notions of employment for his own personal poetry, which is realised through the sound of American lower classes: soul.
The film boasts Auf Wiedersehen, Pet writers Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement, who imbue the film with iron and grit, but they wisely stuck to the original book in an effort not to make the story too “British” in its resolve. Author Roddy Doyle worked on the script, and the film feels authentically Dublin, casting a reflection on the city in the middle of a recession. What emerges from the feature isn’t necessarily rebellion, but heart, as a convoy of young people bandy together to bring music and craic back to the city. Rabbitte flits between imagination and reality, aching for the day he appears on Terry Wogan’s show, only to realise the impracticalities of the crusade.
But somewhere between the guitar hooks and shimmering choruses comes an inhouse drama as saxophone player Joey “The Lips” (Johnny Murphy) makes advances on some of the female singers in the troupe. He represents the old guard, proclaiming himself a musician of high repute, boasting that he has performed with everyone from John Lennon to Otis Redding. Joey fancies the willowy Natalie (played by dark-haired beauty Maria Doyle Kennedy), who in turn has her eyes on Rabbitte, but he says the band needs to keep their relationship at a professional level. And then in a scene that seems to come out of a Shakespearian comedy, the bandmates launch into a slanging match as each remembers the wrongdoings of their bandmate and colleagues.
The Parker who made The Wall is at home in the world of musical theatre, but it helps that this production has a more coherent narrative to follow. It’s certainly a smart move to film Rabbitte monologuing to himself, bolstered by Procol Harum lyrics and Van Morrison tunes. Parker even films the adolescent in a bubble bath, suggesting – as his father (Colm Meaney) drily notes – that he’s living in a world of near fiction and frenzy. Rabbitte maintains a facade, but behind the scenes, self-doubt kicks in, especially when he’s spotted by a bandmate at the dole office. And yet his efforts are rewarded when he’s told that the band are much happier being penniless musicians than unemployed craftsmen.
Fantasy drives the plot, but what’s more apparent is that the musicians are enjoying themselves, deeply committed to the art that their vehicle can offer the world. In 1991, the film served as a portrait of triumph, but these days the film doubles as social history, examining the proclivities of a faction of Dublin that is nominally ignored by the media at large. With a city that’s less spectacular than the Dublin of James Joyce’s writings, the film highlights the dogs that entertain families when the prospect of travel is untenable.
Unlike Roddam, Parker doesn’t shy away from the musical standouts, as the characters sing on their to rehearsals and concerts, but wisely contextualises the moments to avoid the “bursting into song” cliche that had become so tired by the early 1990s. Instead, he lets the story dictate the musical numbers. In terms of big-screen treatments, The Commitments is clearly indebted to the gritty British dramas of the 1970s, but it modernises the story to realise that to be passionate is no less truthful than the harder-edged dramas that came before it.
Best of all, the film stayed true to the Dublin it was trying to represent, ensuring that every quip uttered was done with great reverence to the place in question. In an almost blinding opening address, Rabbitte informs the band of the music they represent. “The Irish are the blacks of Europe,” he cries, “Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and the North Siders are the blacks of Dublin … so say it loud — I’m black and I’m proud!”
The film certainly made an impression, as almost all of the actors went on to enjoy great careers. Glen Hansard enjoyed the greatest success as a musician- he penned the Oscar-winning ‘Falling Slowly’ – but they’ve each found their own way into the world of cinema. Like the characters they represented, none of them let the world kick them down the block.