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The Commitments: Collector's Edition

Audiences are intimately familiar with the work of Alan Parker even if they don't immediately recognize his name — the British ex-ad man is responsible for an impressive collection of films that make money and entertain ticket-buyers, but he's never mentioned in the upper-tiers of modern filmmakers. For while the general public seems to like Parker's work, critics often don't care for him very much — and special-interest groups have repeatedly accused him of focusing on the wrong aspect of the stories he's told. With Midnight Express (1978) Parker was charged with racism regarding the way he portrayed Turkish prison guards; with Mississippi Burning (1988) he took heat for making a movie more about white civil rights workers than about the blacks who were fighting the good fight; and when Parker signed on to direct Madonna in Evita (1996), he was not only flogged repeatedly by the press but received death threats from Argentinians who took issue with the Material Girl playing one of their most beloved cultural icons. Apparently unswayed by threats and criticisms — Parker, who received a knighthood in 2002, is frequently referred to in the British press as a "curmudgeon" and a "bruiser" — the director continues to take on projects that divide critics. In the 1990s, that included adaptations of books by two wildly disparate Irish authors — Frank McCourt's downbeat memoir "Angela's Ashes" and Roddy Doyle's rollicking comic novel "The Commitments." The first film received a mixed reception, with reviewers finding it either deeply moving or unrelentingly bleak, but the second was warmly embraced by both critics and audiences alike — Doyle's ode to the spirit of the Irish working class became, as critic Scott Weinberg put it, Parker's "celebration of black soul music … in one of the whitest places on Earth." Released with little fanfare and a small promotional budget, it was easy to miss The Commitments on its 1991 theatrical release if you didn't live in a major metropolitan area (the title grossed just under $15 million), but it's one of Parker's happiest, most enjoyable films. In one of the poorest parts of North Dublin, ambitious young Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) hatches a scheme to put together a band — and not just any band, mind you, but a band playing great classic American soul music. His Elvis-worshipping father (Colm Meaney) and his mates are dubious but, as Rabbitte explains, "The Irish are the blacks of Europe, the Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and Northsiders are the blacks of Dublin. So say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud!" After a disappointing — and very funny — series of auditions for singers, Rabbitte finds the perfect front man in disheveled Deco Cuffe (Andrew Strong), a Joe Cocker sound-alike with the size and grace of John Belushi. The group pulls together with admirable ingenuity — the piano player confesses that he stole the piano from his grandmother, explaining, "She doesn't know I took it, but she doesn't use the front room very often" — and Rabbitte schools his ensemble on the gospel of Wilson Pickett and James Brown. The group's journey through rehearsals and early gigs to their inevitable Shot at the Big Time is hardly smooth, with the boorish Deco insulting the girl backup singers, who in turn each have a tumble with fast-talking horn player Joey "The Lips" Fagan (Johnny Murphy), and the usual backstage rivalries threaten to tear the band apart. But there's a carrot at the end of the stick, if they can pull themselves together — Wilson Pickett himself is coming to town, and he's promised to play a set with them. Or so Joey "The Lips" says, anyway.

*          *          *

Some of Alan Parker's best films have been musical projects, from the grossly misunderstood 1980 hit Fame (which is far grittier than most people remember and an obvious precursor to The Commitments) back through his interpretation of Pink Floyd's The Wall (1982) and his early, underrated Bugsy Malone (1976). As good as The Commitments is as an ensemble acting piece — and it's very good, especially given the cast of mostly novice actors — the film really soars when it's all about the music. Sixteen-year-old Andrew Strong was discovered by Parker purely by accident — the son of a singer with whom Parker was rehearsing, he stepped in when his father's voice became hoarse and Parker cast him immediately. He's a remarkable talent, bringing a vibrancy to classics like "Mustang Sally" and "Try a Little Tenderness" that rivals the original recordings. Parker's loving musical tribute inspired a brief international resurgence of interest in classic soul music, with MTV playing videos featuring songs from the film (the first soundtrack album, with the band's covers of songs like "Chain of Fools," "The Dark End of the Street," "In the Midnight Hour," and "I Never Loved a Man," was such a huge, immediate seller that a second volume was released six months later), contributing to a boom in album sales for the original artists. With a catalog of wonderful songs, a phenomenally talented cast, and a dead-perfect eye for the clash of egos and ambitions that sink most bands before they ever really get started, The Commitments is an irresistible delight. Fox's special-edition DVD release replaces an earlier full-frame-only disc, offering a gorgeous transfer of the movie in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Visually, this is a lovely picture — shot on location in Dublin, it's earthy and gritty with an expert use of shadow and contrast, and the squeaky-clean transfer here presents it all beautifully. The audio is equally fine, with the Dolby Digital 5.1 track (in English, French or Spanish) balancing music, dialogue and ambient sounds to good effect. On board is a commentary by Alan Parker, whose affection for the movie is obvious — his comments are spare, but fans will appreciate the interesting background details he offers. A second disc offers a nice collection of extras, including a fairly standard "making-of" featurette (22 min.); a much better retrospective entitled "The Commitments: Looking Back," with often hilarious anecdotes from the band members and a portion devoted to Irish swearing (47 min.); a background feature on "Dublin Soul: The Working Class and Changing Face of Dublin" (15 min.); another "making-of" that offers little that isn't available on the longer featurettes (8 min.); music videos, trailers, TV and radio spots and a still gallery. Dual-DVD digipak.
—Dawn Taylor



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