*** (A must-see)

Directed by Alan Parker

Written by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, and Roddy Doyle

With Robert Arkins, Michael Aherne, Angeline Ball, Maria Doyle, Johnny Murphy, Andrew Strong, and Colm Meaney.

Depending on the source, British director Alan Parker is either a fraud or a visionary, an opportunist or a provocateur, and he’s deft at obfuscating those lines. Whether he’s willing to admit it or not, Parker is very much an establishment Hollywood figure. Despite his rebellious posture and all the cutting remarks he’s made about the system in the years since his 1976 debut, Bugsy Malone, all ten of his features have been largely Hollywood-financed, and distributed by major studios.

Parker has spent so much time trying to convince everyone how radical and authentic his work is that he seems scarcely aware just how conventional his last few films have been. Parker likes to talk, and he likes to attract attention, but his movies don’t always measure up to the expectations he creates. The only thing he’s accomplished with defensive retorts in the press to critics like Pauline Kael, Spike Lee, Disney’s Jeffrey Katzenberg, or nameless studio bosses is to alienate other critics and audiences who’ve been sensitive and responsive to his work.

A profile in the September Premiere is quintessential Parker; he’s honest, engaging, and speaks his mind on everything from his movies and the Hollywood establishment to other people’s movies and the current state of arts criticism generally. It’s great copy, and vastly entertaining, but it does make you want to tell him to shut the hell up and make his movies.

Even his severest critics probably wouldn’t challenge the notion that Parker has talent. He’s got a painter’s eye, and he knows how to use the considerable skills of his frequent collaborators–cinematographers Michael Seresin and Peter Biziou, production designer Brian Morris, and editor Gerry Hambling. You’d have trouble finding two other Hollywood movies as formally secure in their cutting, framing, and lighting as Mississippi Burning (1988) or Come See the Paradise (1990). Thematically, though, the two movies are maddening, impossible, because of the way Parker distorts their sociopolitical contexts. In Mississippi Burning, he ignores the well-documented destabilization and infiltration campaigns the federal government orchestrated against the civil rights movement and casts two white FBI agents as rogue heroes and eventual saviors. In Come See the Paradise, he blithely treats the sacrifices of an Irish political activist as equivalent in significance to the unconstitutional incarceration of his Japanese-American wife. At his absolute worst Parker uses the historical struggles of his minority subjects as a backdrop for stories that demonstrate the prowess of his white movie-star heroes. (In his defense, Parker has said that using white leads was the only way either of those movies would have been financed, and he’s probably right.)

Parker has been called a sentimentalist for being more interested in pleasing an audience than in verisimilitude. Critics have been wary of him because he got his start directing television commercials, and his films do reflect that background: his settings are stylized, pattern obsessive, postcard pretty in spite of their repressive subjects (Turkish prisons or Japanese internment camps). Yet despite the frequent perception of Parker as a filmmaker whose goal is box-office success, his popularity is more imagined than real. His best two films, Shoot the Moon (1982) and Birdy (1984), had limited regional releases; Pink Floyd–The Wall (1982) is a midnight-movie curiosity. Angel Heart (1987) and Come See the Paradise were unqualified bombs. In terms of box-office grosses, Bugsy Malone, Midnight Express (1979), and Fame (1980) were marginal successes. Despite Oscar nominations, controversy, and attendant publicity, Mississippi Burning earned a steady though unspectacular $35 million in grosses. This tension between commercial and noncommercial status has really trapped Parker, and he’s been largely unable to prove either his commercial credentials with the movie executives or his aesthetic impulses with his critics.

Happily, with The Commitments Parker has loosened up without significantly changing his style. There’s a joyous exuberance in the movie’s staging and execution, and at its best it achieves a quiet lyricism that overcomes the thinness of the material. The movie isn’t substantial or thought provoking; it’s just funny and sharp, and its lack of ambition is probably to everyone’s advantage.

The straightforward plot concerns the formation, early success, and collapse of a ten-member soul band created out of the depression and blight of Dublin’s squalid north side. The leader is the resourceful young impresario Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins), a kid on the dole who lives with his parents in their cramped row house. When two old school friends, fledgling musicians Outspan (Glen Hansard) and Derek (Kenneth McCluskey), ask him to manage their band, Jimmy relishes the chance to start from scratch and move his friends away from the kitschy standards they’d been playing at weddings. Jimmy’s passionate about rhythm and blues, and he believes there’s a shared cultural sensibility between the black soul musicians of the 60s and the working-class Irish of the late 80s. (“The Irish are the blacks of Europe,” he says.) Jimmy imagines this new band welding the sensual, loose energy of black soul with an anarchic Irish sensibility.

Jimmy pursues his vision with zeal. He places an ad in the local newspaper and holds an open casting call in his parents’ living room, a sequence Parker shoots in the same quick-cutting, shot/reaction-shot format of the audition montage in Fame, only here it’s better integrated into the narrative. Jimmy is very protective of his biases and has little patience for most of the auditioners: before he’ll even let them into the house, he interrogates them about their musical influences and tries to find out if they’re sufficiently working-class. Jimmy’s father (Colm Meaney) is an Elvis freak, and it’s refreshing to see a youth movie where the older generation isn’t defined derogatorily.

Parker uses the opening sequences to establish the texture and shape of these kids’ lives and the drabness of their surroundings: the dank, concrete slabs of public housing, the claustrophobic streets, the ominous landscapes, and the kids’ longing for escape and adventure. When the open call fails to produce any qualified players, Jimmy looks elsewhere; the keyboardist, Steven Clifford (Michael Aherne), is an organist at Jimmy’s family’s church and a medical student; saxophonist Dean Fay (Felim Gormley) is a jazz enthusiast and neighborhood acquaintance. The drummer he finds, Billy Mooney (Dick Massey), is quick-tempered and prone to violence, and he has to get his equipment out of hock before he can play. When Billy quits the group, his replacement is Mickah (Dave Finnegan), formerly the band’s security man. One of the running jokes is that Mickah can’t differentiate between his two jobs; he still doesn’t know how to walk away from a fight.

Jimmy shrewdly plays off the ennui of his edgy, profane friend Bernie (Bronagh Gallagher), who’s trapped in a nothing job, and convinces her to invite the shapely Imelda Quirke (Angeline Ball) into the group; Bernie also brings in the dark, ferocious Natalie (Maria Doyle). The three backup vocalists have an electric, intimidating sexual presence that gradually threatens to fracture the band’s already tenuous interrelations.

Parker can’t resist some hyped-up visuals, such as the scene where Jimmy hunts down Deco (Andrew Strong, whose father Rob is a noted Irish bluesman), a husky, uncouth slob with a gravelly, soulful voice, to front the band. Set in a coffee shop, the framing is leaden and overcomposed, with smoke and industrial ruin filling the background. It’s as if Parker doesn’t trust his own instincts, or doesn’t believe the material alone has enough dramatic punch. Thankfully that scene is isolated, and by and large The Commitments is one of Parker’s most subtle and cinematographically restrained films. Working with the cinematographer Gale Tattersall (Seresin’s protege), Parker shoots in gradations of brown, gray, and black; the dank atmosphere of Dublin’s streets is established merely by recording the band members’ daily lives. Gerry Hambling’s fluid, compressed editing holds the disparate elements together.

The script is by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, with assistance from Roddy Doyle, a Dublin schoolteacher and playwright whose 1987 novella is the film’s source. The movie retains the book’s profane, slang-ridden voice and draws out in fluid, sharp strokes its most charismatic performer, Joey “the Lips” Fagan (Johnny Murphy). He’s a suave, 50-ish trumpeter who arrives on Jimmy’s doorstep mysteriously, claiming to have played with virtually all the 60s acts of any importance (Elvis, B.B. King, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Stevie Wonder). He’s the band’s connective thread, its guru, simultaneously romancing the three women and instructing the less secure players in the art of their craft.

The movie has some of the difficulties endemic to Parker’s previous work–including a failure to transcend the limitations of the setup–but there’s an undeniable pleasure and skill in its telling, and no awkwardness. It’s probably Parker’s most significant achievement that he’s able to grant the various band members appealing and consistent identities without blundering into stereotypes or phoniness. Their personalities come out through the accumulation of details: their frank, brutal dialogue (and obsession with talking about sex), the way they eat and drink, their dress. It’s worth noting that with the exception of Murphy, an Abbey Theatre regular, and Gallagher, none of the cast–made up of real-life musicians and singers–has any previous acting experience, much less formal training, and yet there’s a prickly substance to their work. The bravado, the sexual taunting, the rivalries and petty jealousies that emerge and eventually occasion the band’s breakup unfold so casually and matter-of-factly that by the end there’s a genuine sense of loss, of opportunities denied.

Dramatically not much happens in The Commitments, and in a way that’s a relief after the jazzed-up construction of Parker’s last two films. The movie shows the band’s development as they gather confidence and stage presence during their rehearsals above a pool hall and at their first gig at a community center. We see the band channel their volatile mix of ideas, ambitions, and playing styles into a remarkable confluence, and the change is most noticeable in the brass arrangements, the movements of the backup singers, and the invigorating, over-the-top showmanship of Strong.

Parker is also smart enough to let the songs play uninterrupted, with few exceptions, and in the best moments–the band performing such covers as “Mustang Sally,” “In the Midnight Hour,” “The Dark End of the Street,” and “Try a Little Tenderness”–there’s a clear excitement. There are even unexpected pleasures, in particular the maturing of the women, initially frightened and unsure of themselves and by the end demanding our respect. When Doyle (who’s a backup singer with the estimable Irish folk group the Black Velvet Band) does a sultry, knockout version of “Chain of Fools,” the women are finally acknowledged as equals, and the band’s metamorphosis seems complete.

The Commitments is possibly Parker’s most personal film, his own working-class origins in the north London borough of Islington paralleling those of his characters. Punk was born amid the poverty and rage of 70s London, and in this movie the choice of music is also an act of defiance and self-definition, a refusal to be marginalized or ignored. This small jewel has earned Parker the best reviews of his career; what’s more, the audience has connected to this film in a way it didn’t with his social-conscience films.

The band plays in tight, restricted spaces, the players are shown in various forms of confinement and stasis throughout the movie, and musically the group’s power is derived through a concentration of voices and actions. The balance of the sound track is a sharp blend of Irish and Scottish acts (And And! And, the Proclaimers, Niamh Kavanagh) and original Motown artists, the backstage material is both funny and wholly believable, and we’re treated to postscript bios of the major players–all of which contributes to the movie’s low-key charm and amiability. Most likely, you’ll exit with a sly grin.