Perhaps because Alan Parker got his start in commercials, the life span of any given scene in his movies is tragically short — quick retinal stimulation accompanied by a pound of sound. Cinematically speaking, he’s a master of the three-minute egg. Parts of Fame (1980), played with the volume off, could be cola commercials, and even the angst-ridden Shoot the Moon (1982) has sequences of Diane Keaton moping depressively about the house that look like painkiller spots. Parker’s hyperactive style prefigures MTV, too. Midnight Express (1978) really is a music video disguised as a jailbreak melodrama — the whiplash action prettified by diffuse lighting and cattle-prodded into life by Giorgio Moroder’s pulsing disco score. A slick miniaturist, Parker crafts movies that play like one little audiovisual orgasm after another. The man seems never to have heard of foreplay.
The good news, then, is that his latest, The Commitments, is not only a great swim for the eyeballs but a little more gung ho in its brazen VH-1 readiness. And because the supercharged pieces of Parker’s movies actually fare better on the small screen, The Commitments makes a perfect video pet. Shove it in the VCR and go about your business: Make a few phone calls, do the laundry, bake a cake, conceive a child — you won’t feel you’ve missed much. A party tape, yes; perhaps a gift for a dear friend who has just been put on Ritalin.
With perhaps more F- words than Raging Bull, The Commitments tells of disenfranchised working-class kids in Dublin forming a soul band. Now, the notion of white people singing soul — Irish white people who are, as the band’s manager (Robert Arkins) puts it, ”the blacks of Europe” — is endearingly farfetched. The band’s lead singer (Andrew Strong) is transfixing, with a voice that seems to come from the caked sides of a whiskey cask. The musical numbers, as in Fame, are infectious: A person has to be dead from the neck down not to want to jump up and move when the Commitments perform ”Mustang Sally” or ”Chain of Fools.” The soundtrack album, deservedly, was a big enough hit to sire a sequel.
Just don’t come expecting depth. Spiritually, Parker still hasn’t left the pasteup department. He and his editor since the infant days of 1976’s Bugsy Malone, Gerry Hambling, fire their standard rat-a-tat-tat energy into all the numbers in The Commitments, but otherwise Parker never commits to any scene. It’s always a heigh-ho, heigh-ho, off we go to find another image to bop you - over the head with. And that’s why his movies aren’t emotionally satisfying. He still uses people — here, a cast of genial unknowns — as props.
What The Commitments doesn’t have (although it offers a perfect opportunity) is the more elusive magic that would have galvanized the story of teenagers forming a band as a rite of passage. But Parker seems uninterested in characters beyond what they mean as types. No wonder he was attracted to the idea of Bugsy Malone, a gangster musical parody cast entirely with children — who are essentially unformed as people. When Parker has to linger on characters for a while, as in Birdy (1985), they defeat him.
Parker seems as meanspirited, too, about the Dublin working classes as he was misguided about blacks in Mississippi Burning (1988), which managed to pat whites on the back for the struggles of the civil rights movement. With the promise of a visit from Wilson Pickett hovering over the band’s climactic show, The Commitments certainly owns up to soul music’s wellsprings in the black American working class. But through that admission Parker also denies his inarticulate Irish the possibility of coming up with a sound of their own. Snappily as it plays on the surface, The Commitments also skims it, leaving a rich human vein unmined. B-