Directed by Alan Parker
Starring Robert Arkins, Andrew Strong, Johnny Murphy, Colm Meaney
Released on 19th September 2016
It’s an anniversary worth celebrating. When it arrived back in 1991, The Commitments brought something new to music films. An edginess, something that pushed the proverbial boundaries, and with an irresistible exuberance and raw energy.
And Alan Parker’s story of “the world’s hardest working band” – aka a rag tag soul group from Dublin’s less affluent North Side – didn’t only go down well with cinema-goers. The critics loved it as well, especially in this country, so much so that it won four BAFTAs, including Best Film.
For those who’ve not seen it, or need their memories refreshing, it’s based on Roddy Doyle’s book of the same name, about how would-be manager Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) pulls together a motley crew of a band. It’s made up mainly of his friends, apart from bus conductor Deco Cuffe (Andrew Strong) who he hears singing at a wedding reception and trumpeter Joey “The Lips” Fagan (Johnny Murphy) who arrives on his moped, full of religious quotations and tales of working with the soul greats. On the thinnest of shoestrings, they play several gigs, and they’re on the up, but Jimmy’s being chased for money and cracks between the members of the band are starting to show.
Doyle worked on the script as well, alongside the legendary double act of Dick Clement and Ian LeFrenais. They were legends even in the 90s. The result is rammed with great one verbal and visual one-liners. The North Side of Dublin is chaotic, with kids vandalising derelict buildings and generally running riot. Painted in large letters on a wall is the phrase “Caution. Children At Play.” Take it how you will. The dialogue is just as sharp, overflowing with retorts and curses. And there are times when 20/20 hindsight makes you feel you’re watching a forerunner of Father Ted. A distant relative of Mrs Doyle is there, scraping away the melted candle wax in the church. An elderly man, nodding off at the wedding reception is abruptly woken up by a child – and his reaction could come straight out of the mouth of Father Jack. And when it looks like the band are going to get proper management, the record label involved is Eejit Records. With Parker, no less, in a cameo as a sound engineer.
It doesn’t completely throw convention out of the window. There’s all those unsuitable applicants knocking on Jimmy’s door, an idea repeated this year in Sing Street. But what you remember most is that raw energy, not just when the band are singing but also in the performances of the young and, at the time, totally unknown cast. Andrew Strong’s voice stands the test of time: in truth, his singing is better than his acting and his character is another convention, the beautiful voice belonging to somebody ugly. There’s familiar faces as well. Colm Meaney as Jimmy’s Dad, a devoted Elvis fan. And Johnny Murphy’s memorable Joey “The Lips” who simultaneously galvanises the band and sows the seeds of its destruction. Are all his stories true? We and Jimmy doubt it. Then it seems they might be. As he rides his moped into the rainy night, we never really know for sure.
While viewing it in hindsight exposes the film’s reliance on conventions, it also demonstrates that time hasn’t dulled its energy. The reputation of The Commitments lives on, both as a film and now also as a stage show. If you’ve never seen it before, then you should. You’ll be swept along by the gags and music. And if you remember it from the 90s, then just get all nostalgic and enjoy it all over again.
The 25th anniversary edition of The Commitments DVD is out now and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 22nd September.