Strange confection: The Commitments and the battle for Dublin’s soul

A British director, an Irish cast and an African-American soundtrack – but it worked

Alan Parker with the cast of The Commitments in 1991

Alan Parker with the cast of The Commitments in 1991

 

RTÉ’s highly enjoyable Back to Barrytown series (the third and final episode of which airs this Sunday) is a reminder of how rich and valuable intelligent programmes about popular culture history can be. Unfortunately, the subject is too often treated as mere fodder for fluffy nostalgia exercises or left to the untender mercies of cultural studies departments.

Watching the first two programmes, about the making of The Commitments and The Snapper, it came as no surprise that Roddy Doyle regards the latter as the superior film, which by many measures it is, with director Stephen Frears showing more sympathy for Doyle’s aesthetic and intent. In fact, despite the series’ title, Barrytown, Doyle’s fictionalised version of Kilbarrack, doesn’t figure at all in The Commitments, whose director Alan Parker preferred picturesque inner-city urban decay for his backdrop instead of low-rise Northside suburbia.

Similarly, The Commitments has often been compared unfavourably to its (sort of) sequel as being somehow less pure, compromised by the commercial considerations required by a larger budget and by the “Hollywood” sensibilities of its LA-based expat British director. In addition, the almost exclusively British creative team on The Commitments introduced bits and pieces of Oirishry and Catholic piety which Doyle understandably found irritating and anachronistic. All of this is on one level true and on another an over-simplification.

The Snapper is a fine film, in many ways a logical culmination of Doyle’s ambition to do for urban working-class Ireland what Ken Loach and Alan Bleasdale had been doing for years in the UK. The irony that it took the BBC to address issues of gender and class in modern Ireland would be repeated several more times in the years that followed. But three decades on, it seems to me (and not just because I have fond memories of working as a lowly production assistant on the shoot) that Parker’s film is in many ways weirder and more interesting, especially as a means of understanding the time and context in which it was made.

Cultural threads

Reading advance proofs of a new book on The Commitments due for publication later this year confirms that view. Nessa Johnston’s The Commitments: Youth, Music and Authenticity in 1990s Ireland (Routledge) seeks to disentangle and hold up to the light some of the complicated social, political and cultural threads which run through the film (I was one of the hapless bystanders interviewed for it).

Dublin, still drowsy from the noxious fumes of U2’s Rattle and Hum, was in a slightly different musical place

Set in Dublin, made by a British creative team, financed with American money, centred on African-American music, featuring mostly non-actors who were asked for the most part to play “themselves”, the Commitments is a strange confection. As Johnston’s title suggests, it takes the always tricky concept of “authenticity” and stretches it to breaking point and beyond. Parker’s own self-image as an outspoken opponent of what he regarded as the unambitious, TV-based culture of the British film industry (the very same realist tradition to which Doyle and Frears aspired), found expression in a preference for “movies” over “films” and his (unusual for an A-list director at the time) love of musicals.

The book is particularly good on the music and the - to put it mildly - ambiguous relationship The Commitments has with the pop cultural moment in which it’s actually set. It’s an element which probably hasn’t had enough attention paid to it up to now.

Acid house

Why are The Commitments a soul band? Why do they never play an original? Why do they only cover songs that were already a quarter of a century old? What’s with the ponytails? 1990, the year the film was made, was a time when acid house was still washing across pop culture, hip-hop was entering the charts and rave beats were being melded with rock. None of this is visible in the finished film, even in the audition scenes, although Johnston does make the point that Dublin, still drowsy from the noxious fumes of U2’s Rattle and Hum, was in a slightly different musical place. Film, with its long-haul production schedules, is notoriously bad at capturing quicksilver moments in time, but the Stax standards which Jimmy Rabbitte instructs the band to play had already been commodified over the course of the 1980s in a welter of jeans ads, romcoms and Stock, Aitken and Waterman covers.

Many of the answers to these questions were entirely practical. Doyle chose soul because he wanted to have girls in the band; the filmmakers wanted a ready-made soundtrack of familiar songs; the ponytails came with the performers in 1990. It’s the interplay between these different elements – Doyle’s boisterous dialogue, Parker’s visualisation of a decrepit city, the grafted-on soundtrack and the irrepressible energy of the young performers – that makes The Commitments so unusually, imperfectly unique.

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