*½/**** Image A Sound A Extras A
starring Robert Arkins, Michael Aherne, Angeline Ball, Maria Doyle Kennedy
screenplay by Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais and Roddy Doyle
directed by Alan Parker
by Walter Chaw Alan Parker likes to use his platform as a film director to preach about all manner of society's more obvious ails, reserving the bulk of his ham-fisted proselytizing for the problems he himself identifies as endemic to the United States: hedonism and drug abuse (The Wall, Midnight Express); the price of a culture of fame (The Wall, Fame); the price of Vietnam and our broken social services system (Birdy); the rampant Yankee tragedy of divorce (Shoot the Moon); racism (Mississippi Burning, Come See the Paradise); our love/hate/fear relationship with food (The Road to Wellville); and, most recently (and egregiously), the death penalty (The Life of David Gale). When Parker manages to shut his hole long enough to pack his ponderous, moronic disdain back across the pond, the films he produces there (Angela's Ashes, The Commitments) are weepy prole sagas highlighting the determination of grubby Dickensian urchins toiling in the underbelly of failed capitalism--which, in Parker's mind, is probably America's fault, too. Poor baby. I'm not sure what's made Parker an expert on fixing the United States (something to do with his background as a commercial director, I suspect), but I for one am just so grateful for his insight.
The Commitments is the groundwork for The Full Monty school of noble blue-collar western Europeans who like their beer dark and their unemployment light. I'm thinking that the popularity of garbage like this (and Billy Elliot, Greenfingers, Waking Ned Divine, and so on) is grounded in our endless delight in feeling sorry for Londoners and Dubliners, finding their plight to be adorable almost as much as the plucky drunken dole-rats who strip, dance, fight, and sing for our pleasure. The Commitments should come with an empty guitar case or a hat so we tourists from the evil empire can throw our filthy lucre into the till for all the endearingly struggling entertainers--it's the only thing missing from the experience. The Commitments all but begs that we chuck quarters at it. Parker doesn't approach his films from a level place, in other words, either being condescending towards the United States that he hates or being patronizing and disingenuous towards the European ghettos that he loves. Having a point of view isn't a problem, of course--having a point of view that makes you an asshole does, however, make it hard to like your movies. (For all that, I should say that I think Parker's anomalous Angel Heart is one of the best American films of the '80s.)
Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) wants to start a soul band. Thus paves the way for the requisite montage sequence in which talentless pretenders parade through in rapid-fire fashion, putting their meagre talents on display for our bemusement. "American Idol" has made an ungodly amount of money doing the same thing--something that should cause Parker some pause considering that the show is an example of everything he appears to hate about The Land of the Free. Once assembled, the titular ensemble, led by Joe Cocker-like sixteen-year-old Deco (Andrew Strong) and alleged beauty Imelda (Angeline Ball) love and hate, fight and play, and go through all the motions of every episode of "The Monkees". Giving it a hint of cultural topicality, the screenplay by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, and Roddy Doyle (based on Doyle's novel) has the characters in turn express a wizened, resigned attitude towards unemployment. "I could go to jail, or worse, lose my job," mutters one. "I'd rather be an unemployed musician than an unemployed pipefitter," says another. And so it goes as Jimmy hustles for gigs, waits in vain for a cameo by Wilson Pickett, and, like the rest of the film, runs out of steam and purpose long before the final credits provide sweet relief.
The largely improvised dialogue disguises the lack of acting experience by the cast, with lines being shuffled around willy-nilly when it appears that someone (mostly Strong) isn't up to the task of delivering them. (Strong, in fact, wanders through the background of most of the expository scenes like some kind of mute flesh golem.) The aggregate effect of all the juggling is that The Commitments becomes alternately a soapbox for Parker using his green cast as a bullhorn and an extended concert video shot with the same two-camera set in various pub sets featuring a band that, for the most part, turns R&B classics into their mechanical pod counterparts. As one character is obsessed with Elvis, it strikes as ironic that Elvis's blue-eyed soul reflects a lot of the same marketing success as The Commitments outrageously popular soundtrack album--making one character's line about the Irish being Europe's black folks interesting for more than just the realization that Parker is taking another oblique shot across the bow at America's race record. Plotless, directionless, and snappy in the same way and for the same audience that the music in Disney's Hercules was, The Commitments shows its hand when it ends with an "update" of what each of the characters is doing "now," a movie-of-the-week contrivance, and just the most obvious one of the multitude that comprise the rest of the film.
The unaccountable popularity of the film and what appears to be genuine respect for all of their titles has led Fox to substitute their bare-bones, fullscreen DVD release of The Commitments with a Collector's Edition that preserves the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio (to my eye, it looks closer to 1.77:1) in an anamorphic transfer that is simply beautiful. The video is well matched by a DD 5.1 audio mix that blows the shingles off the roof: the musical numbers sound as good as they can, though they're so clean that the obviousness that the vocal tracks are laid on a separate channel make the scenes as they play out in crowded pubs seem curiously detached. The vocals come from an omniscient, non-directional soundtrack suppleness when the logic of the scene would actually dictate a directional modeling. The focus of the film--the musical numbers, its crutch--is highlighted by what is otherwise (and regardless) an excellent mix.
Parker provides a feature-length yakker as the only special feature on the first disc of this two-disc set, leaving extra room for Parker's undeniably fulsome eye. Nobody ever said he was a bad commercial filmmaker--just a jerk. The first hour of his commentary occasionally sparks some interest in the process of casting and the ways that Parker hides his stars' relative shortcomings. It's mainly interesting because he succeeds for the most part and it's compelling to hear the degree of planning that went into it. But after that first hour, his anecdotes flag and he begins to regurgitate plot and, on a couple of occasions, actually mumble the lines before the characters say them. The purpose of that? Unknown. Puzzlingly, there's a scene with a character playing piano on the back of a truck, an image indelibly married to Five Easy Pieces, and Parker neglects to mention any connection. A musing that Dublin's unemployment isn't as bad now as it was then threatens to go somewhere, but doesn't--something that's sort of poetic, actually, considering the film being commented upon. It bears mentioning that the menus are wonderfully constructed--the best I've seen this year.
The second disc is a treasure trove for fans of The Commitments. It begins with a 1991 "making of" featurette (23 mins.) in full-frame with lots of film clips, B-reel footage, and an interview with Parker that consists mainly of him thinking back on how many people he saw for the flick and a couple of casting interviews. Standard interviews with cast have them describing their characters, and so on--standard fare and revealing mainly for the extent of backstory that each of them has and the lack of said backstory evident in the final product. A new documentary, "Looking Back" (47 mins.), suffers a little from the predictable malady of Parker's interview going over much of the same ground that his commentary does. Of interest, though, is a section featuring author Doyle, co-screenwriters Clement and La Frenais, and producers Linda Myles and Roger Randall-Cutler wherein the difficulty of adapting a book to the screen is combed in intimate and revealing detail. The piece is in an unusually attractive 1.85:1 widescreen presentation from a 35mm source that demonstrates no expense spared. Interviews with the amateur musician/actors today in various settings gives some fascinating insight into the impact, or lack thereof, of the film on their lives. I'd recommend an either/or situation between this and the commentary: both contain the same information--but if pressed, go with the docu, as it covers all aspects of pre/post/and post-release. It's exhaustive and professional and the film just doesn't deserve it.
"Dublin Soul: The Working Class and Changing Face of Dublin" (14 mins.) betrays Parker's socialist concerns with a documentary showing some cast and crew visiting the industrial city and talking to kids playing football in among the tenements. Another "Making of" featurette (8 mins.) that is the inferior clone to the first, plus a music video (really just clips from the film--it's weird and by that I mean "stupid" and "a waste of life") for "Treat Her Right" introduced by Robert Arkins and Parker round out the first page of special feature menu options. The second begins with "Original Songs by Cast Members" that has Strong singing "We May Be Down (But We're Not Out)" and Arkins crooning "Taking on the World" with cheesy single-still photo accompaniment. A theatrical trailer (non-anamorphic), six television spots, four radio spots, and a 19-still stills gallery cap the presentation. What lingers, I have to say, is this nagging thought that Parker stills looks exactly like a shaggy actor asked to play a director in an arthouse film, and damned if his films don't seem to be directed the same way. The whole shebang is encapsulated in a gatefold slipped discreetly into an attractive slipcover. Originally published: March 15, 2004.