The Commitments: Special Edition Review

Gary Couzens has reviewed the Region 2 release of Alan Parker’s film The Commitments, a comedy about the rise and fall of a Dublin soul band. The DVD is a big step up from the earlier 4:3, almost barebones, release, though the extras include some filler.

[Please note: The review copy received by DVD Times was a single dual-layered checkdisc. However, the released edition is over two discs, with all the extras bar the commentary on the second disc. The film disc also includes a DTS 5.1 soundtrack which was not present on the review copy. Therefore you should bear this in mind particularly when reading my comments on picture and sound quality as they may not be representative of the DVD available for sale.]

Given the current fashionability of young-adult fiction, it’s interesting to consider that Roddy Doyle might have become a leading YA author instead of the prizewinning writer that he is. The Commitments and, to a lesser extent its follow-up The Snapper, less so later novels, are perfect teenage reads, dealing as they do with young protagonists and subjects of immediate concern to that age group. Even the copious swearing is no bar to that readership. The Commitments and The Snapper also read like screenplays in novel form, consisting of dialogue and very sparse description. With the third novel of his Barrytown Trilogy, the Booker-nominated The Van, Doyle developed his narrative abilities and took on more “adult” subject matter. (The Booker-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha might have a ten-year-old as a protagonist, but I wouldn’t call it a kid’s book – it’s actually my least favourite Doyle.)

Unfortunately no publisher saw Doyle’s potential at the time so he kept his teaching day-job and published The Commitments himself. That first edition now changes hands for three-figure sums. However, word of mouth did the rest and soon the film rights were sold. There was talk of relocating the story to London or New York, but sense prevailed and the film was set where it should be, Dublin. Alan Parker cast the film with for the most part genuine Northsiders, many of whom had not acted before Apart from stage actor Johnny Murphy (playing trumpeter Joey “The Lips” Fagan), they did their own playing and singing.

The Commitments is a simple story of Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) who puts together a soul band. They don’t make Number One, or even make a record, and it all ends in acrimony, but as Joey says, it raises people’s expectations and was great while it lasted. For many working-class Dubliners, if they can’t be a professional footballer or boxer then the only real escape from their background is music. For many people that escape can only be temporary, a moment on stage when everyone in the band is in synch and it all works…even if it doesn’t last. This film is frequently laugh-out-loud funny – Doyle’s ear for Dublin humour is at its most acute – but it’s poignant as well. The experienced writing duo of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais rewrote Doyle’s screenplay and the result is that rare thing: a good, if very short and spare, novel turned into a film which may well be even better, certainly more fleshed out.

At times in his career Alan Parker has shown a formidable grasp of film technique which too often has become visual bombast. (I’m thinking of Midnight Express and Pink Floyd The Wall especially here, two films that I acknowledge are extremely well made but to me are dislikeable.) Visual overkill is something that flaws the very similar Australian film Garage Days. But here Parker seems unusually relaxed: he lets the music play and the story unfold without getting in the way of it. The DP was Gale Tattersall, a new collaborator for Parker (all of whose previous films were photographed by Michael Seresin or Peter Biziou). I don’t know how much influence he had, but this is a very stylish-looking film in its understated, rather grungy way. And the music, mostly 60s soul covers, is very well played and sung. Then sixteen-year-old Andrew Strong, as rotund bus conductor turned lead vocalist Deco, went on to a solo career. The young cast are perfectly directed. Amongst the older actors, Colm Meaney went on to repeat the role as the father in the films of The Snapper and The Van, made for the BBC by Stephen Frears. In those films, the family name had to be changed to Curley as the rights to the name Rabbitte had been bought by Fox with the film rights to The Commitments. Andrea Corr plays Jimmy’s sister and the rest of The Corrs turn up briefly as well, the other two sisters as uncredited extras.

The Commitments has some claim to be Parker’s best work, and certainly he hasn’t come close to it in the decade and a half since. It’s a treat.

This DVD is encoded for Region 2 only. Apart from being in PAL rather than NTSC, it’s very similar to the Region 1 edition reviewed by Mark Boydell here a year ago.

The transfer is anamorphic, in the correct ratio of 1.85:1. That in itself is a step up from the previous 4:3 British release. The result is very good. The colour scheme is deliberately muted but the picture is sharp with strong blacks and excellent shadow detail. A light grain gives the picture a pleasing film-like look. There are some artefacts present, particularly in scenes set at night or lit by stage lights, but it isn’t distracting. The bit rate is somewhat low (generally around 5Mbps) but on a 28” widescreen TV and a 17” PC monitor that doesn’t seem to have affected the quality unduly.

The Commitments was a year or so too early for a digital soundtrack, so the theatrical Dolby SR track has been remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1. As often with an analogue-to-digital remix it lacks the power and dynamic range of a track that’s digital from the outset. That said, it’s a natural-sounding mix that uses the surrounds a lot for ambience. Most importantly the dialogue is always clear and the music sounds fine. Just as well for those who might struggle with Dublin accents, subtitles are provided for the feature and the extras. There are forty chapter stops.

On to the extras. Parker’s commentary is consistently interesting, despite a few pauses, taking us through the film from inception to completion, dispensing some technical information (without being too technical) and some interesting trivia. “The Making of Alan Parker’s Film The Commitments” is a featurette made at the time. It’s designed to fit a half-hour TV slot, with breaks for commercials. Much of the running time is made up of extracts from the film, but in between we get interviews with Parker, Doyle and several of the cast. The featurette is in 4:3 and runs 22:36. The video quality is noticeably lower than that of the other featurettes.

The largest extra is “The Commitments – Looking Back” is a newly-made documentary (16:9 anamorphic, running 47:10), taking us through the process from Doyle’s original novel to the completion of the film. It’s sobering to see how much older certain people look – Roddy Doyle and Andrew Strong have lost their hair in the meantime. Interviewees include casting directors Ros and John Hubbard (who certainly earned their keep on this film), Gale Tattersall and producer Lynda Miles.

“Dublin Soul: The Working Class and the Changing Face of Dublin” is nice to see, the sort of extra most DVD producers wouldn’t think of including. Doyle and Irish MP Tony Gregory describe how Dublin declined in 1850s, with whole families living in a single room. Until recently Ireland was a poor country but in more recent times has become more prosperous. We also get to see the Ballymun housing development in the North Side of Dublin, a not entirely successful attempt to solve the housing crisis, a real-life equivalent to Doyle’s fictional Barrytown. This featurette is in 16:9 anamorphic, including some scratchy archive footage, and runs 14:52.

“Making of Featurette” (8:39) seems to be a cut-down version of the earlier making-of and as such seems redundant.

The second page of extras begins with the music video from the film, “Treat Her Right” (5:46). This is 4:3 with an introduction by Parker and Robert Arkins in non-anamorphic 16:9. This, along with the trailer, was one of the few that was included on the original British DVD release. Next up are two original songs by cast members: “We May Be Down (But We’re Not Out)” by Andrew Strong (3:18) and “Taking On the World” by Robert Arkins (4:03). Both are audio-only (Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo), playing over a 16:9 anamorphic still from the film. These are both good, but like the second making-of come close to being filler.

The theatrical trailer is a green-label (all audiences) US effort, in 4:3 open-matte and running 2:24. It does a good job of selling the movie, with plenty of music and a few jokes. Finally there are eight 32-second TV spots (“’Review’”, “Open End”, “Starts Wednesday August 14”, “Now Playing”, “’It’s Funny’”, “Starts Friday”, “Starts Tomorrow” and “Now Playing in Select Theaters”) and four 33-second radio spots (“Starts Wednesday”, “Starts Friday”, “Starts Tomorrow” and “Now Playing”). These are all heavy on quotes from approving American critics.

The two-disc box set includes a booklet which has not been seen by me.

The Commitments is a highly entertaining movie that stands up well to repeated viewings. Picture and sound are good on this special edition DVD. The extras include some filler but are generally substantial.


Updated: Mar 17, 2005

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