‘The Commitments’: Ian La Frenais interview

❉ The likely lad and one half of writing duo Clement & La Frenais, looks back on bringing Roddy Doyle’s book to screen.

“I remember going to the premieres, it was just fantastic” La Frenais says, with justifiable pride. “It was just great that cast, all very good. Alan was such a great director and there was so much to plunder from Roddy’s book.”

“I read The Commitments first” Ian La Frenais recalls. “It was marvellous, so I told Dick Clement that he had to read it. I gave it to him and he loved it too. Roger, our producer, had optioned it and we worked with him. Roddy Doyle, the author, had worked on it before. We all loved it and then we gave the book to the director Alan Parker. He said he wanted to do it. It all came very naturally after that”.

Television writers Clement and La Frenais contributed a protean level of scripts, veering from the comical (Porridge) to the liturgical (What Ever Happened To The Likely Lads), establishing the duo as two of Britain’s foremost writers. Matchless work ethic ensured the pair would work in cinema in the eighties. George Harrison, a rock star with a taste for the cinematic, had established Handmade Films, a film company who elected to work Clement and La Frenais, cinema writers with rock proclivities. Through 1979 to 1990, Handmade Films reignited the British film market with interesting and entrancing products.

Water was a bit of a nothing film, but it had a lot of rockstars in it” La Frenais says. “Nobody was buying rock films in the seventies. There was one I can think of, One Trick Pony with Paul Simon, things like Quadrophenia had rock music but not about bands. The Commitments changed all that and brought us into making rock band films. We later wrote Still Crazy, Killing Bono and did Across The Universe with Julie Taymor”.

Doyle’s considerate The Commitments, a celebratory musing of unemployed Dublin musicians, brought with it a parlance and rhetoric as faithful to Doyle’s everyday city as Irvine Welsh’s Edinburgh was brought to life through Renton’s eyes. “We might have thought we were too English for it at first, but it was such a wonderfully authentic story, there was no reason it couldn’t translate as a film. There were people saying they wouldn’t know how to understand the characters in America. Why wouldn’t they? They have lots of dialects and accents of their own. Funnily, it was English people who probably had more of a problem than American. True story!”

Doyle’s Dublin is a world away from the stylised and beguiling paintings James Joyce memorialised. Tenement Catholic houses acted as rehearsal rooms, grainy video shops courting discussions on soul music and prolonged dole queues doubled as confessionals as effectively as they supplying income. “We’re a Third World Country, what you going to do?” Jimmy Rabitte retorts, unsure that his ambitions to be a rock manager would be beneficial for Benefit Fittings. It is a great credit to The Commitments that the power of the film reverts to the everyday realities Irish people faced and still face, covering issues and qualms with wit and musicianship.

“We were casting for Joey The Lips, and we thought we might need a big name. We spoke to Van Morrison at one point, thinking he could play the part, and he told us the script was “shite”. That was a great start! He also wanted the film to be more about his music, not about soul! We stopped that and didn’t go for names. Someone else came to audition for Joey and brought with him a bag of trumpets. He’d just bought them before the audition [laughs]. He didn’t get the part.”

Rather, acclaimed stage actor Johnny Murphy got the part. Time has been very kind to the actors, most of them unknown at the time. It’s an incredible C.V. Guitarist Glen Hansard won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Song, based on the indie film Once, vocalists Bronagh Gallagher and Maria Doyle were set up to feature in Pulp Fiction, Father Ted, The Tudors and Pramface. Within the Rabbitte family, a youthful Andrea Corr sits lasciviously, her appearance as Jimmy’s sister telling of her stance as frontwoman for The Corrs, while pater Rabbitte was heralded by Colm Meaney, who starred in Stephen Frears The Van, the closing part of Doyle’s eminent Barrytown Trilogy.

“Alan was involved with all of the casting. He was fantastic with all these kids” La Frenais continues. “The one difference he had for casting was when it came to Andrew Strong. Alan thought if a band is to get there, it has to be through the singer. We had written him like a rock god, a bit like the guy from Hothouse Flowers. Andrew Strong’s father was in the shadow band for The Commitments. He brought his son along one day. Alan heard what Andrew had and he told us we had to re-write the part for Andrew. We agreed and of course, Andrew gave it everything. It was funny, nobody seemed to fancy Maria Doyle, even though we all did [chuckles]. So, we wrote it that she would have something with Jimmy Rabbitte.”

Opening in 1991, the film’s infectious energy struck a chord in the American film market, profanities and professed dreams the subject of cinemagoers interest. The Washington Post wrote on September 13, 1991: “The film’s script — which Roddy Doyle adapted from his novel with Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais — is beautifully structured and tight as a drumhead. This is a deadly funny movie; nearly every scene is broken off with a punch line.”

The film strikes an integral dichotomy between the wasteful and the brilliant components of youth. “I remember going to the premieres, it was just fantastic” La Frenais says, with justifiable pride. “It was just great that cast, all very good. Alan was such a great director and there was so much to plunder from Roddy’s book. The main thing we did was give it a structure and a third act. We wrote the ending, the Wilson Pickett end. We didn’t want a Hollywood ending, so we ended it with that note of bad luck or meant to be? Harvey Weinstein came to us many times to ask us for a sequel. We showed him our new script, Still Crazy, a film with Stephen Rea, Bill Nighy and Billy Connolly. He said “that proves you should make Commitments 2!” So, we looked into it. We thought they could get back together, tour America, but it just didn’t strike a right chord with us. They go to America and are triumphant? No.”

The film’s status is assured. The success of The Commitments has ensured spin-off groups, stage productions and continued fame for all involved. La Frenais is the first to acknowledge the power of the film, a litany of musical joy steeped in the courage only youth provides. It might be the greatest rock movie yet made, a testament to a director whose wheelhouse included a close collaboration with Pink Floyd.

“I think it’s my favourite of Alan’s work. It was a tremendous experience. We’ve continued to write rock movies and we’ve brought Killing Bono back to the stage. It’s fantastic, we were drawn to Neil McCormick’s memoir as we were to Roddy’s work. That film changed a bit to how we wrote it, it was darker and the ending was different. I’ve had many experiences, we did Never Say Never Again, the James Bond movie, and that was a great experience as we got to travel to different places. But out of cinema experiences, The Commitments has to be the best”.

❉ Eoghan Lyng is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. His writing has also appeared in Record Collector, CultureSonar, Punk Noir Magazine and other titles.

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