No limo?” asks Johnny Murphy with mock dismay as he eyes the chartered bus parked outside Los Angeles Airport’s international terminal. He and his 10 Irish compatriots have just alighted as honored guests flown in by Twentieth Century Fox. They’ve been looking forward to some heavy pampering during their five days in the glamour capital of the world, and pampering means limos. Still, even a gray-and-blue bus is a lot more luxury than these rookie actors are used to, and more than the working-class rock & rollers they portrayed on-screen could ever dream of. The Dubliners standing curbside with their mismatched suitcases are the Commitments, a struggling soul band with an abundance of talent, ambition, and naïveté, in Alan Parker’s new film of the same name.
Most are in their early 20s; only Murphy, 48, a stage veteran, has been in a film before. Hundreds of musicians were auditioned in Dublin before Parker cast the group. ”They’d already made a decision in their lives to be performers,” says the director, ”so it wasn’t as if I took someone off the street.”
And here they are — eight of them making their first trip to the U.S. — getting a taste of the Big Time, Hollywood-style, with a heady round of galas and greetings capped by their film’s world premiere. After that, they’ll be off to Chicago and New York to shake more hands, attend more parties, and be quizzed yet again about their heavy accents, an expectable annoyance for someone who says ”fill-um” when the subject is movies. And at the moment, waiting to board the bus, they look a bit bowled over, or as the Irish would say, gobsmacked.
As soon as the bus sets off for the tony Sunset Marquis Hotel, where they’ll be staying, it’s obvious that some of the Commitments are not entirely unfamiliar with L.A. ”Where’s Jim Rockford?” one asks as they swing onto Sepulveda Boulevard. Amid the laughter, Murphy, the film’s hip, middle-aged trumpeter Joey ”The Lips” Fagan, acts the wise world traveler, just as he does on-screen. Don’t jaywalk in this town, he warns — stiff fines. The only other performer with acting experience — 19-year-old Bronagh Gallagher, who plays gritty backing singer and ”Commitment-ette” Bernie McGloughlin — has never been Stateside, and she’s jumping out of her seat regularly. They pass over the jammed San Diego freeway. ”Oh my God,” she cries in a thick brogue, ”look at the motorway!” ”Stop,” comes another voice as the bus passes two famous golden arches, ”I want a burger.”
Now they’re on La Cienega Boulevard, and hefty, rugged-voiced Andrew Strong, who plays an ornery slob of a lead singer, stares out at the giant Beverly Center mall and dreams aloud to the publicist next to him. ”A Porsche,” he says contemplatively. ”And a big blond beside me.”
Others are planning their first stop. Murphy intends to find a pub. Michael Aherne, the Commitments’ medical student-pianist, will seek the nearest Saturday night Mass. And as they close in on the hotel, the buzzing gets louder, with one exception. Robert Arkins, who plays the group’s manager, has yet to say a word to anyone. He’s engrossed in a book called The Serial Killers.
”I went into a pub last night, and this guy orders a pint of Guinness, and they just put the f—-n’ thing out like beer and there you go,” Andrew Strong is saying in disbelief. ”In Ireland, they just pour half the glass and let it settle for about five minutes, and then they top it off, and make sure it’s a really cool white head, and then they leave it sitting there for two minutes just to settle. And then they give you your pint. I was looking at all this s— and saying, ‘Jesus Christ, how do they get away with it?”’
Strong is sitting in a rehearsal studio on Santa Monica Boulevard on Day Four, killing time while his bandmates run through the songs they’ll perform at the fancy party at the Palace theater after the movie’s premiere. He’s describing the culture shock he has experienced already. American beer, he says, has less alcohol than he’s used to. ”But I can’t drink for a full year.” Why? ”Just look at me, man,” Strong says, pointing down to his sizable gut. ”I have to go off drink for, like, four months, and then I’ll just go on a binge for the rest of the year, you know?”
Despite the age in his voice and face — he could easily pass for 30 — Strong is only 17 and very much a teenager. ”My parents are very cool,” he says. ”I can do whatever I want.” Indeed he can. Impressed with his impassioned performance in The Commitments, MCA Records has signed Strong for his first solo album. Meanwhile, the movie is packing houses in its initial, limited run, the soundtrack is out on MCA, and a video is imminent. ”It’s kind of like everybody wants to milk this,” says Strong approvingly. ”It was a wonderful experience. I thought the acting was quite easy. The only thing that was a lot of pressure was the singing, because it was a live take. So I had to be very cautious about being in tune.”
After a few days on the publicity circuit, Strong is also growing more mindful of what he tells the press. ”I don’t wanna be in a big limo with two big blond chicks hanging on me,” he confesses, slouching in his overstuffed chair and looking disgusted at yesterday’s notion. ”I just want to get up and get into a microphone and just sing.”
Across the hall, on a small rehearsal stage, the Commitments’ rhythm section is doing Wilson Pickett’s 1965 ”In the Midnight Hour” while the others look on, bored. There’s a big surprise planned for the premiere party. In the film, the group’s big break hinges on whether the idolized soul singer will appear onstage with them as promised; but at the party, Pickett will indeed show up to sing ”In the Midnight Hour” — his first big hit-with the group.
When Pickett walks into rehearsal and meets the Commitments, the event verges on the mystical. As he shakes hands, his eyes dart from face to face. ”You’re one of them,” he says, grinning. ”So are you.” Encircled by Commitments, Pickett tells them he saw the film the night before and loved it — though he had a hard time with the Irish accents.
As the group runs through ”In the Midnight Hour,” their spirits begin to wilt when Pickett, who handles his classic wonderfully, says it’s dragging. Changing the arrangement constantly, he asks keyboardist Aherne to improvise a riff that is clearly beyond him. The singer is used to performing with pros, which the Commitments, by design, aren’t.
Strong, who has been absent, walks into the room and watches Pickett perform. ”Wanna get the air-conditioning turned on?” Bronagh Gallagher calls out pleasantly from the stage, where she is sweating it out with the Commitment-ettes. ”I wanna f—-n’ watch this,” Strong replies, sounding like his headstrong character, but he leaves soon after.
Fifteen minutes later, there’s a break and Strong instantly returns. Pickett greets him warmly: ”I sang just like you,” he jokes. As the two singers talk, there are loud laughs and flashing cameras from grinning band members. Arkins, who’s been watching from a corner, nods toward Strong. ”He deliberately left the room before,” he says, bemused, ”so that he could come back for the big moment.”
It’s the night of the premiere and the Commitments are about to make their concert debut. The movie has been received warmly, and now hundreds of Hollywood luminaries, from Milli Vanilli and Winona Ryder to Kevin Costner and Quincy Jones, are being offered Guinness that has quite noticeably settled and a mix of Irish and soul food — veal sausage and hush puppies.
When the Commitments finally take the stage, they do it gradually: A lone Commitment-ette, Angeline Ball, backed by session musicians, sings ”I Can’t Stand the Rain,” and then, song by song, other band members join her. The audience cheers them on, then rapturously greets Strong, who makes his entrance to the show-stopping ”Try a Little Tenderness.” ”This is for all you people,” he says, beaming down on the partygoers. ”Did you all enjoy the movie?” he shouts after ”Mustang Sally,” a born performer playing to a sure audience. ”Here’s a song by one of my personal heroes,” Strong then announces. And as ”In the Midnight Hour” begins and the sweating teenager is joined onstage by the man still sometimes called the ”Wicked” Pickett, the audience howls in soulful appreciation. There’s an embrace and big smiles, and as the two share a microphone, alternating choruses, the band looks over at them with pride.
When he met them the day before, Pickett had asked only one question about their ”Midnight” — ”Is it in the same key?” — and tonight, their celluloid dream on the verge of fulfillment, the Commitments are certainly in key — and very much in tune.