How to film Roddy Doyle’s comic and affecting novel about a Dublin band trying to bring soul music to Ireland? Audition 3000 musicians and pick the top twelve to play the Commitments. It’s the old Monkees trick: If you can’t find a band, manufacture one. British director Alan Parker (Fame, Mississippi Burning) lucks out. The dozen unknowns he’s chosen — ten with no previous acting credits — make a joyful noise and rousing company. Parker, however, hasn’t made much of a movie.
Slickness is the culprit. Doyle, a Dublin teacher, wrote in a language redolent of the struggle of the Northside’s unemployed youth. But Doyle’s script, spiffed up by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, has a fake romantic sheen. Parker gives Dublin’s poverty the same misplaced gloss he brought to the Japanese refugee camps in Come See the Paradise. And the predictable way in which the band’s nine men and three women argue about music, sex and fame robs the story of urgency.
The film is best when Parker just lets the cast rip. Andrew Strong, a beefy dynamo of sixteen, plays Deco — a singer with the manners of a pig and the voice of a fallen angel. The fiftyish Johnny Murphy, a stage actor and nonmusician, makes sly work of trumpet player Joey the Lips, a lying coot who galls the boyos by shagging the three sexy backup singers — Imelda (Angeline Ball), Bernie (Bronagh Gallagher) and Natalie (Maria Doyle). All three women make distinct impressions, but Doyle has a haunting loveliness. The film’s best performance comes from Robert Arkins, 21, as the band’s flinty manager, Jimmy Rabbitte. It’s ironic that Arkins — who fronts his own band (the Chryslers) — has a straight acting role, but his face expressively mirrors the band’s changing fortunes. The film has the same eloquence when the Commitments allow their feelings to seep into the music in such numbers as “Mustang Sally” and “In the Midnight Hour.” But Parker keeps going for the glitz. He may have shot The Commitments in Ireland, but his soul never left Hollywood.