Alan Parker wanted ‘urban decay’ for The Commitments. Early-90s Dublin offered plenty of that
TV: As Back to Barrytown recounts, the movie brought Hollywood to Ireland just when we needed it
The Commitments: Alan Parker with the cast of his 1991 film version of Roddy Doyle’s novel. Photograph: RTÉ
Whether zipping across the universe as Star Trek’s Chief O’Brien or swearing up a streak in his many memorable turns on the big screen, Colm Meaney makes for consistently convivial company. That is once again the case as he marks the 30th anniversary of Alan Parker’s adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments with an hour of turbo-charged nostalgia.
The first of a three-part celebration of the movie versions of Doyle’s Barrytown novels, Back to Barrytown (RTÉ One, Sunday) doesn’t bite off more than it can chew. There is no deep analysis of Doyle’s work, let alone any mild criticism of his portrayal of working-class Dubliners. This is nothing more or less than a hagiography – and, as is the way with hagiography, it’s a breezy watch.
Meaney, who blitzed through The Commitments as Jimmy Rabbitte snr, is joined by Doyle for a pint and a revisiting of the 1991 film, which Doyle says he hasn’t seen since it came out. It captures a Dublin that looks like a bomb site – when Parker told a location scout he wanted “urban decay” he was assured he wouldn’t lack choices.
A few mini-dramas are wrapped in here. Doyle recalls having to fight for a screenplay credit; he concludes that, had he not done so, he might have come away slightly embittered from the process. And Glen Hansard, who played Outspan, says his memories of The Commitments are tainted slightly by nasty (and unrepeatable) comments that Parker made to him.
He also reveals that there were tensions among the cast about money. “One of the things that causes trouble is when people are on different amount of pay,” he says. That would have created a little weird dynamic.”
Melancholy intrudes too. Robert Arkins, the musician turned reluctant actor who plays the lead part of Jimmy Rabbitte jnr, the wheeling-dealing band leader, is ambivalent about the legacy of The Commitments. “Whether it helped me or messed me up for the future – that’s the big one.” Andrew Strong, whose powerhouse vocals drove the musical scenes, is seen only in archive footage.
The Commitments was part of a resurgence of confidence in the Irish
Doyle expresses misgivings about several new scenes that injected some “Oirishness”, such as when a character goes to confession. “The punchline is funny,” says Doyle. “But he wouldn’t have been going to confession in the first place.”
Yet these wrinkles are not allowed to detract from the message that Parker’s movie was a huge moment for Dublin. “The Commitments was part of a resurgence of confidence in the Irish,” says Hansard.
Meaney agrees. “For the first time we saw a Dublin we recognised on film,” he says. “It brought Hollywood to Dublin, just when we needed it.”