MOVIES : Irish Soul : How Alan Parker drew upon the working-class kids of Dublin to power his movie 'The Commitments,' about a fictional Irish band

David Gritten is a London-based free-lance writer.

Kilbarrack is an unlovely blue-collar housing project on the north side of this city, a place of drab, gray, unattractive postwar dwellings. Garbage is strewn across its streets; young people huddle on street corners looking poor, suspicious and vaguely threatening.

Nothing about Kilbarrack invites you even to step out of your cab, but at this project and half a dozen like it, unemployed kids, obsessed by pop music, save their welfare money to buy guitars and amps. They form bands and congregate in garages, bedrooms and vacant church halls to practice. Typically, the bands stay together for a few months before splitting up, but the experience forms an escape from the hardships of Dublin working-class life.

In 1987, Roddy Doyle, then a 29-year-old teacher at a Kilbarrack school, noticed this trend. "It seemed," says Doyle now, "that every kid in Dublin is or was or will be or wants to be in a band." He began a novel about a dozen kids who formed a soul band called the Commitments, knocking out cover versions of '60s songs such as Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang," James Brown's "Out of Sight" and Eddie Floyd's "Knock on Wood."

Doyle doesn't claim that there is a host of young soul bands in Dublin performing Stax and Motown covers. "I had them play soul because it allowed the band to be bigger, and I could introduce more characters. It also provided a means for putting women in the band to add sexual tension." In his group are three female backup singers, "the Commitment-ettes."

This may all seem unpromising source material for Hollywood, but "The Commitments," a 20th Century Fox film with a budget between $12 million and $15 million, opens Wednesday. The story's journey from being a piece of Doyle's literary imagination to a major studio movie took a circuitous three years.

Doyle published "The Commitments" himself in 1987, using a bank loan he obtained by saying he needed to buy a car. The novel quickly became required reading among insiders in the London and Dublin music business, then came to the attention of British producer Linda Myles, who had been a senior vice president at Columbia Pictures when David Puttnam headed the studio. In 1988, she bought the property and asked Doyle to write a screenplay from his own book, a process that took him a year.

"It wasn't all that bad, especially for a first effort," Myles recalls, "but I thought it needed the input of a more experienced writer."

She sent it to two Brits exiled in Los Angeles: Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who wrote "Water" and "Vice Versa" among other films. "I wanted advice from them on a writer who might do something with the script," Myles says. "But they said they loved it and wanted to do it themselves."

Myles started looking for backers, and talked with a new company called Beacon Communications, created in 1989 by Tom Rosenberg, a Chicago-based real estate developer, and ex-TV journalist Armyan Bernstein, writer and co-producer of Francis Ford Coppola's "One From the Heart."

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Clement and La Frenais had lunch with a friend, English-born director Alan Parker ("Mississippi Burning," "Midnight Express"), enthused about "The Commitments" and lent him a copy of Doyle's novel.

Parker, too, was intrigued, and liked its wry, often foul-mouthed humor. "I laughed out loud on every page," he said. He also appreciated its brevity--the paperback version of "The Commitments" is a mere 165 pages of mostly dialogue. "It was lovely to get a nice little book," Parker recalls.

In part, this was because Parker was involved in the second of two large-scale film projects, both exhausting and controversial. His 1988 film "Mississippi Burning" drew criticism from black and liberal commentators because it portrayed the civil rights struggles of the 1960s in the South through the eyes of two white FBI agents. At the time he first read "The Commitments," Parker was preparing another expensive film critical of past American policy, "Come See the Paradise," an account of Japanese-Americans interned in California detention camps during World War II.

On the horizon was yet another enormous project, a film version of the international hit musical "Les Miserables," which even two years ago was budgeted at $40 million. But Parker decided to pass on "Les Miserables"--"I couldn't summon up the enthusiasm, really," he shrugs now--and opted for "The Commitments," a much smaller film. "It was a remote chance," says Linda Myles, "for a project like this, small in scale, set as it was in Ireland, to attract a major director."

Parker's decision encouraged Beacon and led to Fox, for whom he was already making "Come See the Paradise," to agree to distribute. Everything was in place. Remote chance or not, "The Commitments" was to become a movie.

Parker decided to cast his young soul band from as close to the original source as possible, and went to Dublin last year for a mammoth casting session. In a two-week period, he listened to 64 local bands at 10-minute intervals, "playing everything from heavy metal to hip-hop and folk to funk"--then got each member of each band to read individually for him.

He then organized a casting call at the Mansion House, Dublin's city hall; 1,500 young hopefuls showed up to be videotaped as they read dialogue, sang and played a variety of instruments ranging from tin whistles and Irish pipes to guitars and bagpipes. (Many of those who failed to make the cut are seen in a sequence in the movie in which the young Commitments founder and manager Jimmy Rabbitte auditions potential band members.)

He also hired a house band of musicians who could perform up to 70 soul standards (from which Parker later chose 20 personal favorites for the movie). Several applicants for each character performed with the house band to show what they could do. At the end of each day, Parker took a pile of videotapes back to his hotel to scan the most promising talent.

Who was hired first and last is long forgotten. But Parker had trouble casting the main, non-musical part of Jimmy Rabbitte. Finally and reluctantly he chose Robert Arkins, a musician with no acting experience; Arkins was an outstanding singer and Parker hesitated before sacrificing his vocal prowess.

The part of Deco, the selfish, ambitious young lead singer in the Commitments, went to Andrew Strong, then 16, who was only brought in to front the house band. "One day, I was singing 'Mustang Sally,' and the music coordinator told me to stop halfway through and go for a coffee," Strong recalls. "After a while, he called me back in, and another guy walked up to me and said, 'Hi, I'm Alan Parker, could you read these lines?' I was hired as Deco an hour later."

The auditioning and casting process took almost four months. Only two of Parker's dozen eventual choices had acting experience--Bronagh Gallagher, who plays one of the back-up singers, and Johnny Murphy, as Joey (the Lips) Fagan, the trumpet player who at around 45 is the only older member of the Commitments.

"It was an extraordinary time," Parker recalls. "I would stop kids busking (performing for change) on the streets and call them in to audition. Everyone you bump into in Dublin is in a band, or has a brother or sister who is. It's all there is for them, really.

"In the end we had to choose kids who were quite talented, because they had to play musicians who were awful at first, but gradually improved. So we made our choices. At one point (the studio and Beacon backers) came over to Dublin and saw the kids we'd be using. Later in the day, they were out on Grafton Street, and saw some of the same kids busking for beer money."

For the dozen young unknown Dublin-based actors and singers who appear in "The Commitments" work on the movie had resonances in their own lives. Before the film, most of them had been struggling to establish themselves in Dublin rock bands; as the Commitments, they worked daily on film at forming a group--joking, eating, drinking and arguing together. They had to improve musically to a point where they could perform on camera as a band talented enough to land a recording contract.

Now it's happened in real life. MCA is releasing a soundtrack album to accompany the film's release, featuring the young band performing soul staples like Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle," "Mr. Pitiful" and "Try a Little Tenderness," Aretha Franklin's "I Never Loved a Man" and Joe Tex's "Show Me."

MCA has also signed two of the young artists in the movie to individual contracts. Strong, now 17, starts recording a solo album in November. Arkins also has an MCA deal; he is not seen singing in the film, but sings Roy Head's soul classic "Treat Her Right" over its opening titles.

The film's impending release has already sent record industry talent scouts back to the vital Dublin music scene that also produced U2 and Sinead O'Connor. Glen Hansard, 20, who plays the Commitments' bass player, Outspan, has a band called the Frames, and has since signed a deal with Island Records; Ken McCluskey, the Commitments' guitarist, Derek, plays with the D11 Runners (named after a Dublin zip code) who have already had two Irish chart hits.

Clearly, "The Commitments" could be a beginning rather than an end for many of its young actors. Strong, whose rasping voice recalls Joe Cocker, and whose heavyset build makes him look far older than his years, sees it as a steppingstone.

"There's no point in having a big film come out, and then do nothing," he said. "I feel there's pressure on me, because there'll be the film, the soundtrack, and my own stuff has to be better than that." Strong visited Los Angeles to do preliminary work on his funk-oriented album, and was a little awe-struck. He met the then-couple Kiefer Sutherland and Julia Roberts in Tom Bergin's pub on Fairfax, and talks in hushed tones of "parties with models--these women must have been 6 foot 3." Strong has been singing since he was 6; his father, Rob, sang with a big Irish group called the Plattermen, who did Blood, Sweat and Tears-styled material.

"I'd like to act again," he says. "But not if it got in the way of singing."

Arkins thinks "The Commitments" deserves to be a hit. "Compared with the usual pretentious (movies) that comes out of Hollywood, it's 100 times better," he says flatly.

Unlike Strong he cannot get excited about his solo career. "I always expected I'd get signed," he said. "But with this (film) it just come out of the blue." The speed at which it happened surprised Arkins: "I'd been hoping to get a really fresh sound, and make a killing at a record company with something they'd never heard before. I'm not unhappy. I just don't get worked up about things."

The theme of struggling, unknown young hopefuls awaiting a big break is one Parker, 47, tackled before in his exuberant 1979 film "Fame," which dealt with young students at a performing arts school in New York. "I certainly enjoyed 'The Commitments' more than 'Fame,' " he said. "At the end of 'Fame,' I didn't like every character. With 'The Commitments,' I liked them all.

"There was another difference. 'Fame' was about the American Dream, and it was about young kids who almost expected success. The kids in 'The Commitments' were raised to believe they were going to be failures. They came from large families, mostly, and the sort of background where if they put on airs and graces, they'd be put down. I liked that about them."

"The Commitments" looks very different from most films set in Ireland. Forget the lyrical, wind-swept beauty of David Lean's "Ryan's Daughter," the verdant landscapes of "The Field," or even the jaunty charm of "My Left Foot." Parker's Dublin is a gritty, harsh place--even ugly at times.

"I'm delighted," author Doyle says dryly. "Parker came to Dublin, and there's not a Georgian house or a red-haired colleen in sight." Parker himself understates: "It's not exactly a film that the Irish Tourist Board is going to love."

But the young Dubliners who acted in the film feel that Parker accurately captured their environment. "A lot of Americans will look at this film and never want to come here," jokes Arkins. "But in parts that's what Dublin's like."

Angeline Ball, who plays backup singer Imelda, agrees: "Alan didn't film Dublin through rose-tinted glasses, he filmed it as it was--the deprivation, the unemployment queues. There's nothing glamorous about it, and that's good, because Irish films are usually all landscapes, set 100 years ago, with people saying, 'Begorrah, begosh.' Everything's usually covered with a green carpet. There was a gap that needed to be filled, to bring Ireland into the 1990s."

The film's uncompromising look fits the film's subtext neatly. Says Parker: "Dublin has a high unemployment rate, the youngest population in Europe and an enormous working class. Music becomes important; you may not have a job, but if you can learn a few chords, you do feel good about yourself at the end of the day."

Doyle, who remains a schoolteacher in Kilbarrack and daily sees young lives with limited prospects, agrees. "The point of the story isn't whether the Commitments become a success," he said. "It's about the process of them getting together, becoming better, and having something in their lives which raises the level of their expectations."

"We're all working class, and we've all been in bands like the Commitments," Bronagh Gallagher, another Commitment-ette, added. "Soul music is appropriate, because it's working-class music. The great soul singers--Otis Redding, James Brown--music made them what they were. Look at the song titles: 'Working in the Coal Mine.' There's lots of oppression in Ireland."

Angeline Ball also notes that music is an integral part of Irish culture. "Our people in the (19th Century) potato famine turned to music to give them happiness," she said. "That's what we've always done as a nation--we've turned to music to soothe us and free us.

"Now there's unemployment, not having the money to do what you want. So Irish kids, who could do worse things like get into fights or break into shops, save up their money, buy guitars, struggle to create something positive in their lives."

Whatever the success of "The Commitments," Parker is clearly pleased with his film and entranced by his dozen young proteges. "This was the third of three films I did back to back in three years," he says. "And I'm going to make sure I do my best for this one. Wherever it opens in the world, I want to be there for it."

He feels he abandoned "Come See the Paradise": "I wrote it, directed it, then moved on," he said. (The film failed at the box office, in part because the subject matter did not strike a chord with a public embroiled in the gung-ho atmosphere that attended the buildup to the Gulf War.)

"The Commitments" could be a breakthrough because of its non-American setting, Parker believes: "If you have a film with a universal theme that appeals to people, it doesn't have to be set in Dallas or Pittsburgh or Detroit. The film may be set in Dublin--but these kids could be from anywhere."

Ball and Gallagher, meanwhile, are both appearing in a Dublin stage version of "The Rocky Horror Show" until October. "I'm glad we went back to work," Ball says. "Our heads haven't been filled with the Commitments for the last year. We did a job, it finished and we moved on." She knows great things might happen on the film's release: "But we can't allow our heads to get turned by that."

She doesn't downplay the film's possibilities. "I hope it'll make a difference in two ways," she mused. "From a financial point of view, it might encourage people to invest in Ireland and its film industry and see there's a lot of talent here. And for younger people, it might inspire them to get up and do something with their lives."

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