Commitments screenwriter Dick Clement on how his, and Ian La Frenais’s, adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s novel developed a life of its own
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It was the film that captured a mood, a movement, a culture in working class Dublin, and it is now celebrating its 25th anniversary. The Commitments, originally released as a novel by Roddy Doyle two years previously, catapulted its unknown stars to newly found fame, but why has it stood the test of time?
Dick Clement, who wrote the screenplay, and co-produced the film with his partner Ian La Frenais, believes it was the music, the book and the simplicity that lent itself to the film’s success and long-standing affinity as a cult classic. “It was just so funny. I remember us meeting with Roddy Doyle in Dublin when we first proposed working on the script and he showed us around north Dublin,” he says. “To the places where these people lived and breathed. It was extraordinary. And of course the songs themselves have stood the test of time and are as popular now.”
The pair have a staggeringly impressive and diverse back catalogue of projects, from The Two Ronnies, to Flushed Away to The Bank Job, The Likely Lads and Porridge among many, many others. But what was their biggest challenge in this project?
“Well we weren’t from Dublin. But Roddy brought us into that world and we didn’t have a huge amount to change. The book was the book, and he enjoyed it afterwards. I remember him being a fan of one joke in particular that he frequently comments on.”
And the north Dublin speak, and bolshiness of the young band trying to make it big is as much a part of the film as any of the characters. In fact when you look at the Trivia page on The Commitments IDMB webpage the second fact noted is: “The film runs for 118 minutes. In that time, the word “f**k” is used 169 times.”
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In fact all of the young stars had musical backgrounds. That is how director Alan Parker wanted it. Parker, who also directed Fame, Bugsy Malone, Angela’s Ashes, and Midnight Express, has since said that it was one of his fondest projects due to him being able to mix music with working with young talent, and that he couldn’t wait to get up for work to get on set every morning. He also recently revealed that Kilbarrack, the north Dublin suburb where the novel is set, was too ‘dull’ for the film, so he imagined his own made-up borough combing in 44 different locations from across the city.
The talented young cast of The Commitments, who had been plucked from working-class obscurity, became overnight celebrities as the film became a blockbuster success. The film’s longevity and longterm popular status is largely down to the soundtrack filled with soul classics that the fictional band played. And some of them went on to have huge success, notably The Frames frontman and Once star Glen Hansard, as well as Bronagh Gallagher who went on to have success as a musician as well as parts in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Sherlock Holmes and Star Wars.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary there is a special new edition of the film being released on DVD and Blu-Ray. It includes special bonus features and interviews with the cast and Parker, complete with a collectable booklet and a digital copy to download and watch, bringing the classic right into the 21st century.
Another interesting bit of trivia is that the film is where the Corrs formed. The Dundalk sibling obviously knew each other, but it was the first ever time that they had all worked together professionally, each with small parts as musicians, and they even secured a manager during filming.
The Commitments’ musical coordinator John Hughes noticed their talent and became their manager. And Parker even later offered lead singer Andrea Corr a part in his 1996 musical Evita. And however brilliant, witty and real the script was, the songs are really the sing-along classics that have endured. When released in its own right the soundtrack, which included hits such as In the Midnight Hour, Try a Little Tenderness and Mustang Sally, went on to sell 12 million copies. And who can forget the raw talent from The Commitments front man Declan ‘Deco’ Cuffe, played by Andrew Strong who gave the unforgettable lead vocals.
“It’s how we ended up getting a credit as co-producers because we believed in it so much and had to go to seek funding.
“And then once we had Alan Parker involved we knew that it would get easier. He was adamant that he wanted non-famous, real musicians from Dublin.
“That was our golden moment was getting him on side. We just happened to be discussing it with him in LA and he started to read the novel and he loved it and wanted in.”
So then came the audition process for Parker’s ‘real’ Dubliners, where some 3,000 people showed up. Parker wanted them to audition as bands and if they fit the part then started the lengthy rehearsal process for the inexperienced actors.
“And that’s what he did. All of these kids, musicians showed up for the auditions. Andrew’s father was auditioning for a role, he was a wellknown soul singer around Dublin and his 16-year-old son Andrew just came along with him,” says Clement.
“And once he sang Alan just knew he was Deco. We had to re-write the script a little bit because physically he was different to the person.” And was it harder then to get as much out of the cast?
“Well it proved a lot harder in terms of funding, that’s for sure. It’s easier to sell it if you have a few big names behind it to sell it to an audience. But these needed to be real kids from Dublin, not well-known people pretending. And yes, that proves challenging but it worked in this sense. I suppose if you have big names then they come with their own baggage. These were just directed and natural.”
And the slight amendment to do with Deco’s character wasn’t the only re-write that was given due to the inexperience of the young cast. “The youth and the rawness is what made it work. But obviously once the cast was finalised we could see where some were stronger or weaker with their acting and speech.
“So, and it wasn’t anything major, the dialogue was fine tuned here and there in terms of lines of speech to allow those a bit more comfortable to get more time.”
“The film runs for 118 minutes. In that time, the word “f**k” is used 169 times.”
One of those young actors was Robert Arkins, who played Jimmy Rabbitte, the eldest son of the family that Doyle based his Barrytown trilogy around. Jimmy was the protagonist of the film, the street-wise, entrepreneurial band manager who is trying to orchestrate his, and his friends’, big break. His on-screen father Larry, of course, was played by Colm Meaney, who later reprised the role in The Van.
How was it for Robert to share such significant screen time with one of Ireland’s biggest film exports. “I was a singer first and foremost, a musician. Acting was not really something I had considered before and I think all of us were using it as a vehicle to boost our careers that way.
“There was word around Dublin that this was going on, and we all got wind of it that way. But yeah, at the time I don’t think Colm Meaney had really made as huge a name for himself, I think Star Trek came afterwards so I wasn’t really in awe or intimidated. And most of my scenes were with the band anyway, I didn’t have much on-screen time in that family unit. And also I had that wonderful fearlessness of youth. We thought we could do anything.”
It was only afterwards that the world changed for Robert.
“We were these kids and thrown into this huge circus that came with the film’s success. Red carpets, press conferences. We weren’t media trained or know what to expect and I suppose for a while after that we all had our own struggles in trying to be ourselves career-wise, rather than that fella from The Commitments.”
And the on-screen bickering was not necessarily something that was left once the cameras stopped rolling.
“It would be lovely for everyone if they thought that we were all this great group of friends since then, that we formed some unbreakable bond. But that’s not the case.
“We all shared that experience, but we were kids. There were too many of us, too many egos I suppose. And you can’t be best friends with everyone you meet. There’s no huge feud there, we’re just not those characters in real-life.
“A lot of us would have known of each other before the film from the music scene in Dublin, but we weren’t close close.”
To mark the film’s 20th anniversary five years ago the cast reformed to go on tour as The Commitments band once more.
“After twenty years you forget about all of that stuff, and yeah that was hard again. Some people have used it as a platform and like that fame side, but it was tough going back as an adult and to listen to it all over again.”
Arkin’s character Jimmy was rumoured to be making a reprise in Doyle’s plans for a sequel novel. He said it would be about Jimmy as a 48- year-old after the recession and looking at him with the pressures of life and a family. But later, as Doyle adapted the novel for the stage, with the musical version of The Commitments a huge success here in the UK, the author said that The Guts, although containing a lot of the same characters was only the ‘nearest thing to a sequel’ but not a formal one as such.
And with Clement and La Frenais’ vast experience in the film industry, what has Dick seen as the biggest change in the 25 years since The Commitments? “It is a lot harder now. Everything seems to be geared towards big-budget comic book action films. There’s not a lot of room for creativity in a script, something long-lasting.”
And would that make it harder for up-and-coming screenwriters to get their work noticed seeing as the pair have built up a long-standing reputation? “I’m not too sure. It seems like people who are willing to give people a chance want these young and exciting emerging writers to be used. We’re maybe a bit too old for the industry.” Dick celebrated his 79th birthday last week, while La Frenais turned 80 in January, but the pair are still as ambitious and driven as ever. “Our latest project is writing a film based on The Kinks. It’s a great story and we can’t wait to have it told. And another musical!”
• The Commitments, with special bonus features and interviews, will be released on Blu-ray and DVD next week on 19 September.
WIN TICKETS TO THE COMMITMENTS 25TH ANNIVERSARY DVD & BLU-RAY LAUNCH
RLJ Entertainment is offering tickets for an exclusive launch party for The Commitments 25th Anniversary DVD & Blu-ray release on 19 September at a London venue.
The Stars From The Commitments will be performing live and we have three pairs of tickets up for grabs. Three runners up will receive a copy of the film on DVD or Blu-ray.
Renowned director Alan Parker’s (Midnight Express, Bugsy Malone), funny, uplifting, gritty film, based on Roddy Doyle’s (The Snapper, The Van), debut novel, took the world by storm on its 1991 release, garnering critical acclaim and awards galore including a BAFTA for Best Film. It has since spawned a slew of touring bands and a hugely successful stage musical which commences its UK tour later this year.
To celebrate the 25th Anniversary of this seminal film, RLJ Entertainment is thrilled to release The Commitments Special Edition, featuring a host of bonus features, including brand new interviews with Alan Parker and cast members and much much more.
It will be released in both Blu-ray and DVD formats, with a digital copy to download, watch and own, and a collectable booklet, on 19 September 2016.