Some links before getting started today. Norma had two reviews. Eve also had reviews. Parsnip showed off her daughter's work. Krisztina had her March letter from the editor. Maria asked how much sex should be in a romance novel. And Lorelei had Amazon issues.
St. Patrick's Day is coming up, and before then, I thought I would review two very different movies, both with an Irish theme to them. This is the first of the pair.
“Do you not get it, lads? The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once, say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud.” ~ Jimmy Rabbitte
“Buddy Holly’s last words. ‘We can’t travel in that shit heap.’” ~ Joey The Lips
“Did Buddy Holly say that?” ~ Outspan Foster
“Before he flew to meet his destiny on that storm-tossed night.” ~Joey The Lips
“That’s fuckin’ blasphemy! Elvis wasn’t a Cajun!” ~ Jimmy Rabbitte Sr.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” ~ Steven
“That’s three Hail Marys for you tomorrow.” ~ Natalie
“The success of the band was irrelevant. You raised their expectations of life, you lifted their horizons. Sure we could have been famous and made albums and stuff, but that would have been predictable. This way it’s poetry.” ~ Joey the Lips
“As I always say, we skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor. I was feeling kind of seasick, but the crowd called out for more. That’s very profound, Jimmy. What does it mean? I’m fucked if I know, Terry.” ~ Jimmy Rabbitte
In 1991, director Alan Parker (Mississippi Burning, Fame, Angela’s Ashes) adapted a novel by Irish writer Roddy Doyle, bringing The Commitments to the big screen. The story, which follows the rise and fall of a group of working class Dubliners forming a band, is told from the point of view of the band’s manager, and presents a character portrait of young people living hard lives and having their expectations for life raised through the experience. Alternatively bleak and very funny, the film has attitude and an amazing soundtrack of soul music.
Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) is a young Dubliner, something of a hustler looking to get ahead in the world. He’s ambitious, drawn to music, opinionated, and a smart aleck. He’s gotten tired of music as it is, and prefers the sound of Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Wilson Pickett: in other words, soul. Two of his friends, Outspan Foster (Glen Hansard) and Derek Scully (Kenneth McCluskey) play in a small band at weddings, and they ask Jimmy to manage them. He agrees- as long as they drop their singer, who he freely admits he hates- and he envisions a band that plays soul.
And so Jimmy starts holding auditions for musicians at home, where he lives with his parents and siblings. His father Jimmy Sr. (Colm Meaney) is an Elvis fanatic who’s dubious of the whole notion. Felim Gormley turns up as the saxophonist Dean. Dick Massey plays Billy, the first of two drummers. The second drummer, Mickah Wallace (Dave Finnegan), starts out as the group’s bouncer (though the band fears he’ll just make off with the money). Michael Aherne plays Steven, a soft spoken medical student who happens to play the piano. A middle aged trumpet player named Joey “The Lips” Fagan (Johnny Murphy) turns up, telling Jimmy he’s come back to Ireland because God told him the Irish need soul music, and also sharing stories of years on the road playing with various musicians and bands. Three backup singers are recruited, Natalie (Maria Doyle), Imelda (Angelina Ball) and Bernie (Bronagh Gallagher). And the lead singer is someone we first meet early on, singing while hammered at a wedding, the loutish Declan “Deco” Cuffe (Andrew Strong), who might be an oaf, but can really sing. The film follows the band as they meet early success and then find themselves dealing with the problems of sex, rampant egos, and clashing personalities.
Roddy Doyle’s novel was the first of a loose trilogy called The Barrytown Trilogy, told in a spare, comedic style. The screenplay adaptation involved Doyle himself, along with Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement. The film is a mix of the comedic and the dramatic, with a rich undertone of the music, which is the bedrock of the film. The screenplay frames the tale from Jimmy’s point of view, told by the character as if he’s being interviewed by a reporter named Terry- Jimmy both asks and answers the questions, and it makes for an interesting form of narration. The writing and dialogue is sharp and pointed, while the story has a bluntness to it. This is an inner city Irish area, where prospects are bleak, and that sense of place and circumstance reflects itself in the personalities of these young people. It’s noticeable in the way they talk- there’s a lot of swearing, for instance, but that never feels gratuitous; instead, it feels like the natural vocabulary of who these people are.
Parker helms the film with an expert touch. The cast he chose is particularly fitting for their parts, and Parker films their interactions through conversations, rehearsals, or performance with just the right manner. His camerawork during performance weaves nicely between performers and audience- he actually had previous work directing a Pink Floyd concert film, so this isn’t surprising. He does present the bleakness of place very well, but also gives great nods to the black humour that springs up. And he knows how to convey those character moments in just the right way. From Joey sharing a story with Jimmy’s parents about how Elvis Presley’s father threw up in his trumpet to quiet moments between Jimmy and Natalie, and Jimmy and Steven talking about the meaning of the lyrics for ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, the film abounds in character moments. Parker even leaves us wondering about Joey: is he some all knowing musical sage, or does he tell tall tales? The richness of characterization in this film runs deep, and Parker captures that beautifully. The film was critically acclaimed and well received by audiences, spawning two soundtracks, winning nominations and awards, including the BAFTA for Best Film.
The cast were chosen first for musical skills, most of the main cast unknown, and in an odd way, it’s fitting that most of them remain fairly unknown. Maria Doyle and Glen Hansard are arguably the most visible members of the cast today, largely because of Downton Abbey for Doyle and the Oscar winning film Once for Hansard, who co-starred in that tale of musicians. The Irish band The Corrs all make early appearances here and there through the film- Andrea Corr plays Jimmy’s sister Sharon, for instance, though she never sings a word. Colm Meaney gets some of the more comedic side of things as the patriarch of the Rabbitte family, a gruff fellow who worships Elvis; his regard for the King is even higher than for the Pope. At one point he says defensively that Elvis is God; Jimmy remarks: “I never pictured God with a fat gut and corset singing ‘My Way’ at Caesar’s Palace.” The elder Rabbitte is dismissive of what his son is up to- and yet once the band is up and running, we catch him enjoying the music. Of Joey, when his son says that God sent him, he asks: “On a fucking Suzuki?”
The cast making up the band are well chosen for their parts. Dick Massey is out relatively early on as Billy the drummer, so he’s the least developed of the band. He seems, like the others, to be a product of his environment, and his decision to walk away seems understandable- hopeless, but understandable. His replacement Mickah, on the other hand, is over the top. The character has a bad reputation, and is no doubt crazy, and ferocious- he fearlessly steps into a fight to help out his manager, and oddly enough proves himself to be completely loyal to the band in the process. Mickah might look out of place in such a band, but he’s a memorable character, and Finnegan plays him that way. Steven is the one member of the band who has another way to really break free of the environment he's in - medical school. Michael Aherne plays the character as soft spoken, polite, quite Catholic (a confession made to his priest is priceless), and perhaps a bit of a nerd, though as things move along he develops a bit of snark. It is a likeable character, and watching Aherne and Arkin riffing on the lyrics for a peculiar song (even the priest finds it peculiar) is fun.
Felim Gormley as Dean is an interesting character, one who starts in one place and goes to another as the story goes along. Early on, practicing with Joey, he’s not quite playing at his best- until Joey tells a hilarious story about why his trumpet is named Gina, which helps Dean along. As the band finds success though, Dean is moving into directions of his own, leaning more towards jazz, which earns animosity from other band members. He ends up, in short, becoming what might be best called a wanker. Kenneth McCluskey, playing the bass as Derek, is not quite as developed as other characters, but we see him as a guy who’s spent time scratching out a living busking, wants more for himself, and comes across as a likeable sort. Much the same applies for Hansard’s Outspan, the guitarist who’s worked with Derek for years. The two are working musicians seeking something steadier and more rewarding in life. They’re both decent guys, though as egos flare and the more unpleasant personalities of the band- Dean and Deco- show themselves, both are outspoken about what they think.
The ladies in the band are strongly written and different from each other. While the initial idea of their inclusion in the band is eye candy, they quickly shoot down the unwanted attention of leering bandmates with a “what are you bleedin’ looking at?” remark. Bernie is a stressed out young woman with family responsibilities trying to make a living. She’s sarcastic and biting at times, has an unusual look to her, and knows the entire purpose of ladies in the band. While being biting, the character is sympathetic, and more grounded as a person. This is not quite the same with Imelda, who comes across as flighty and indecisive at times. She’s the bombshell, yes, but she has problems of her own: a jerk of a boyfriend and parents with high expectations. Angelina Ball plays the character in both ways, flighty on the one hand, but chafing at where her life is heading on the other. Maria Doyle as Natalie is my favourite of the trio. She’s got attitude (and an amazing voice- hearing her sing ‘I Never Loved A Man’ is a showstopper) and sass, but there’s a softer and sympathetic side to her as well. One of my favourite moments in the film is a quiet moment between her and Jimmy, when she asks if he would take her home if he wasn’t the manager. “But I am the manager,” he says, and I find myself thinking each time: look at how she’s looking at you, you fool! Turn around and go to her!
Andrew Strong was a late addition as Deco- largely because of how well he could sing. And can he sing. His vocals on songs like ‘Mustang Sally’, ‘In The Midnight Hour’, or ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ are astonishing. As good a singer as he is, Strong plays the character just as well. Deco might be a good singer, but he’s an obnoxious person, a drunken lout with an ego, not terribly bright- just the sort of guy you’d cross the street to avoid. Which is a mark of how well Strong plays the character. Johnny Murphy is sort of the odd man out as Joey “The Lips” Fagan. The character is older than the rest of the cast, but absolutely vital to the film. He’s the wise mentor, given to speaking in a lyrical way, almost something of a mystic. He tells tales of playing with the Beatles, Elvis, or Wilson Pickett- and we’re left to wonder about him. Is this a career musician or a lifelong wanderer and liar? He also has a tendency to get involved with the ladies in the band, something that drives all three of them at each other and the rest of the band at him. The character is decidedly memorable, and that comes across in his performance.
Robert Arkins owns the role of Jimmy Rabbitte. He was considered for the role of Deco- and he can sing, performing a song or two on the soundtrack albums- but he seemed to be born for this role. Jimmy’s voice as a character comes across so strongly through the film, and that’s from the writing and from Arkins’ performance. He has attitude and snark and the sense of a young man working hard to raise his own expectations. Jimmy knows what he wants, works to the best of his ability managing what becomes a clash of personalities, and comes out feeling disillusioned- and yet there’s still a spark there, the sense that he’s come away from all this wiser and yet not defeated.
The Commitments burned bright when it was released, and watching it again, it still has a fresh, strong energy to it. The music, as played by this group, still sounds as dynamic as it did for the original artists. The film is a story of a band enjoying brief success before egos destroy it- and yet where the characters go from there feels natural to who they are. It might be bleak at times in its depiction of life, but it has real spirit, humour, and fire, and I always come away from this film with a big smile.
Three music selections from the movie: