Illustration: Adeline Pericart
So Film Ireland magazine is 25 years old. Over those years Ireland has produced some great films which have been successful both here and abroad – not to mention nabbing a few Oscars® along the way. And so over the next couple of weeks Film Ireland‘s army of cinema dwellers look back over the last 25 years and recall their favourite Irish films in the latest installment of…
25 Years of Irish Film
(Alan Parker, 1991)
‘… there’s treasure everywhere in this film…’
For a few years after its’ original release, this film existed in the upper stratosphere of quotable comedic films within my circle of friends and family. It was recited, re-enacted and regurgitated in a style usually reserved for timeless masterpieces like Life of Brian, Withnail & I and Blazing Saddles.
This is heady company for any film, let alone an Irish one. Commercially, it was also the little Irish film that could. It could travel beyond our shores. It could open in America. It could spawn not one but two successful soundtrack albums.
And why did it succeed? Mainly because it has a quality that shamefully few Irish films possess or even aim for in the first place. In summary – it’s fun. A ton of fun. The kind of film that can have you rolling in the aisles one second and then dancing in them the next.
Jimmy Rabitte’s quest to assemble a soul band is a fundamentally doomed venture from the get-go. As the ramshackle group gradually gel, petty bickering, instantrivalries and competing egos are only amplified by the merest hint of success.
The humour is naturally mostly derived from Roddy Doyle’s source novel with its’ vivid approach to language – both colloquial and foul. However, it’s augmented by afresh kinetic cast recruited after an exhaustive talent trawl by director Alan Parker. He can be forgiven for laying on the torched cars and urban squalor a tad hard when his raw ensemble delivers the real heart and soul of the piece.
Betcha U2 are shittin’ themselves
Certainly, there’s the odd ropey moment as career musicians struggle to muster the requisite acting chops but even that only adds to the rough charm that permeates the piece. In retrospect, Parker’s dictum that the eventual band actually had to play the music was central to casting decisions. It still sounds both noble and naive a couple of decades on.
As Calvin and Hobbes would attest – there’s treasure everywhere in this film. Colm Meaney’s career crushing putdowns. Dublin elocution lessons. A priest interrupting a confession to correctly attribute ‘When a Man Loves A Woman’ to Percy Sledge. Andrea Corr before she was famous. A banner saying ‘Heroine Kills’. And film fans,here’s a golden nugget of trivia for you – a young Lance Daly (director of Kisses) crops up amid the hopefuls during the hilarious doorstep audition montage.
The really weird thing about watching The Commitments’now is that it is suddenly a period film. Not so much dated but capturing an era just before it disappeared. Real time-capsule stuff. Relics like video stores abound. And if you don’t get a wave of nostalgia when the price of a bag of chips gets mentioned, you probably weren’t alive in 1991.
As for the music, it propels the film completely in places powered by Andrew Strong’s blistering vocals. Full performances of soul standards start to dominate as the film goes on culminating with three songs in their entirety towards the end. It’s an amazing latitude given to the material by Parker that is almost unthinkable today. The closing sequence isn’t remotely indulgent but perhaps an admission that the band has no stories left to tell. The disintegration of the band is the antithesis of a Hollywood ending but all the more poignant and powerful for it.
My favourite musical moment in the film is just a snippet. The nascent band is receiving yet another pep talk from Jimmy as they travel on the DART. Lead by the sax player Dean, they launch into an acapella version of ‘Destination Anywhere’. Of course, the moment is as consciously and artfully constructed as any other but it feels joyfully spontaneous. And that’s what makes it magic.
I’ve often looked around a DART carriage and pondered trying to cajole a bunch of complete strangers into a chorus of the same song. However, in real life that kind of behaviour can get you committed.