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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

August 11, 1991|DAVID GRITTEN | David Gritten is a London-based free-lance writer.

DUBLIN, Ireland — 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.

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