Looking back at THE COMMITMENTS: 25 Years Later with author/co-screenwriter Roddy Doyle
January 29, 2016

Last year the prominent Irish author Roddy Doyle wrote a beautiful essay for Intelligent Life Magazine about his favorite museum to visit: the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. This year, we have decided to turn the tables on Mr. Doyle and interview him about one of his best known works, The Commitments.

Originally written as a novel in 1987 and then adapted for the screen by director  Alan Parker (with a screenplay co-written by Doyle) in 1991, The Commitments tells the story of the rise and fall of a young, working class soul band in Dublin. Featuring covers of classic American soul songs such as “Try A Little Tenderness” and “In the Midnight Hour”, The Commitments is a massively entertaining, often very funny film featuring music that is to die for.

While a modest hit here in the United States, The Commitments was a huge hit in Ireland.  In a 2005 poll, it was voted the best Irish film of all time and is credited with launching a generation of Irish musicians and actors (one of the band members in the film is played by Glen Hansard who found great success a decade later with the film Once). Indeed when casting the film, the filmmakers were looking for individuals who could both act and sing or play an instrument. In 1996, several of the actors in the film were featured – in character – on an Irish postage stamp. In 2013, the novel was adapted into a musical for the London stage.

We thought 2016 would be a particularly good year to ask Roddy Doyle about The Commitments as the film adaptation of his novel will be celebrating its 25th anniversary this summer. Mr. Doyle was kind enough to be able to answer some questions we had about the history of his novel and film.

TM: It has been 25 years since the movie version of The Commitments was released. How do you feel about the film?

RD: I haven’t watched the movie in a long, long time.  But I was very happy with it when I first saw it at a cast and crew screening in Dublin, in 1991.  And I still am.   I think it captured the spirit and energy and humour of the novel very well.

TM: How did you come up with the idea for the novel?

RD: I wanted an excuse to bring a large group of young characters together.  I was a high school teacher at the time, and I think listening to my students all talking at the same time, all trying to be heard, had a big influence on me.  Also, I loved music – going to gigs, reading about music, the history, and the personalities.  I’d just read two books that had a big impact: Peter Guralnick’s SWEET SOUL MUSIC and Gerri Hirshey’s NOWHERE TO RUN – both of them brilliant books about soul.  Those two books nudged me towards creating a fictional soul band on the Northside of Dublin.

TM: The novel was written in 1987., How was it received initially?

RD: I seem to remember that the response was quite positive.  Reaction to my work, I was to discover over the years, has often been wildly enthusiastic or wildly dismissive – if such a thing is possible.   And reaction to The Commitments, in Ireland, was like that.  One review, while generally positive, said that the book would be of little interest to anybody not living in Dublin.   I remember that one quite fondly.

TM: How soon after publication was it until it was optioned for a film adaptation? Was director Alan Parker always attached to it?

RD: The book was published in the U.K. in the spring of 1988, and I met and spoke to the film’s co-producer, Lynda Myles, a few days after publication.  I don’t recall when Alan’s name was mentioned to me first – a year or eighteen months later, I think.

TM: You also wrote the screenplay for the film. Did you always insist on being a part of the film adaptation? How hard was it to adapt your own novel? Did you have to cut elements of the book that you were upset about? Are there any significant differences between the novel and the final film?

RD: I co-wrote the screenplay, with Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais.  When I met Lynda Myles in 1988, we agreed that I’d have a stab at writing it. I was keen to give it a go but I didn’t insist on it.  It was hard because I’d never written – or even read – a working script before.  But Lynda was a brilliant teacher and I gradually got the hang of it.  I think, because of my lack of experience, the script I produced needed more work.  So, Dick and Ian took it and worked with it.  It ended up being co-written, even though we never sat at a desk and worked together.  They wrote on top of what I had written.  I’ve adapted several of my books now for screen and stage and I’ve never been precious about cutting chunks of the book.   It’s inevitable – and necessary.  What often gets overlooked is that it’s an opportunity to put new situations and dialogue into the story.  The biggest difference between the film and book, I think, is the ending.  At the end of the book, Jimmy, the protagonist, is already forming a new band.  It works in the book but would have been a crummy ending to the film.

TM: The story behind the casting of the film is fairly well known. You had to find actors who could actually sing and/or play an instrument. How hard was this process? Were you involved in it?

RD: I wasn’t involved in selecting the cast.  It would never be my job.  There were open casting sessions and the music clubs and venues of Dublin were scoured for likely candidates, but I wasn’t there.  But the film became well known in Dublin long before shooting actually started.

TM: The soundtrack for the film was enormously successful (I remember listening to it on my drives with my parents) with most of the songs being remakes of classic American soul songs. Were there any songs you wanted the band to sing that you couldn’t get the rights for?

RD: I’d have liked some James Brown songs but they weren’t available.  Before filming started, Alan Parker sent me a cassette of all the songs he had to choose from.  It was the best tape I ever had.  I played it for months – until it snapped.  The choices were Alan’s and they were great.

TM: The music of Wilson Pickett plays a crucial role throughout the film. Did the filmmakers try and get Mr. Pickett involved in the film at the time? Did you ever hear from him on whether he saw the film and his thoughts on it?

RD: I don’t know if Wilson Pickett was approached.  Or, if I did know, I don’t remember.  I don’t think it would have been a good idea.  I think it works better with him off-screen, or behind dark glass.  I’ve no idea if he saw, or liked, the film.

TM: For that matter after the film was released, did any legendary musicians reach out to you about the film?

RD: Not that I remember.

TM: Since all the actors in the band can actually sing and play instruments, has there been any attempt at getting them together to play a concert?

RD: Some of them continued to play as The Commitments.  I didn’t – and don’t – like the idea.  The Commitments were fictional and are better left that way, I think.   There were some reunion gigs around Ireland four or five years ago.

 

TM: Finally, what do you think the legacy of The Commitments is?

RD: No living, working author should ever pause at the word ‘legacy’ and give it serious thought.  Someone else can answer that question – after I’m dead, and I don’t have to read it.

TM: Thank you!

–          Post by Jon Pace, Communications Manager at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum