Irish soul and the making of The Commitments
The Commitments is the story of Jimmy Rabbitte and his dream of creating an Irish soul band. The movie is set in the poorest areas of Dublin in 1991. This story in the Los Angeles Times explains how an unlikely cast of characters were brought together to make a great 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.”