The Commitments/School of Rock
For those about to rock, we present you with two DVDs about
the shimmering highs and numbing lows of putting together a band.
Alan Parker's "The Commitments," a golden oldie from 1991, remains one of the
best dramas about life in a rock band. Admittedly, that's a field with few
Everyone knows the best fictional rock movies are comedies -- "A Hard Day's Night," "Rock 'n' Roll High School" and "Spinal Tap" leap to mind. Joining that pack is Richard Linklater's "School of Rock," last winter's hit starring the delightfully delinquent Jack Black.
Parker and Linklater took the hard road of using real musicians -- not actors -- in their fictional bands. "I didn't want to cheat the music," Parker says. Both directors fondly remember the productions as the most fun of their careers.
On disc as onscreen, Parker's film wins the battle of bands. "The Commitments" (two discs, retail $26.98, Fox) soars with a new 5.1 Dolby mix and a beautifully toned widescreen presentation, atoning for Fox's previous full-screen release. (Parker fumes about the film being "butchered" in pan-and-scan.) The whip-smart dialog, rapid pace and infectious musical numbers make "The Commitments" wide open for repeat viewings.
The English director went on location in Dublin, Ireland, for his adaptation of Roddy Doyle's novel about working-class kids who come together to play American soul music. He set up camp at Town Hall and auditioned a thousand or so bands. "The goal was to see everyone who could play an instrument in Ireland," Parker recalls. Van Morrison auditioned but left after making "very rude remarks" about the script.
The drummer got the part after swallowing the microphone whole. ("None of us could forget that.") The lead singer, Andrew Strong, was "quite wild" and only 16 but came equipped with a voice that could rattle the old rafters. When casting was complete, only two of the 10 musicians had acting experience.
Parker knew a thing or two about working with musical youth. He'd directed the 1970s hit "Fame," and wasn't eager to repeat the experience. "At the end of 'Fame,' I didn't want to see any of the kids ever again," he says. In "The Commitments," the kids were all right. "This film was made with a great deal of love."
The movie takes its soul seriously, covering or name-checking the immortals -- such as Otis and Aretha -- as well as such lesser-knowns as Joe Tex and Roy Head. Parker changed the story's musical orientation from Motown to Atlantic, bringing about 70 songs into rehearsals. Parker says the Commitments' performances ranged from just OK ("Mustang Sally") to great ("Dark End of the Street"), partly by design to show the band's evolution. But some of the numbers just couldn't be nailed, he admits.
Two cameras filmed the musical performances, with vocals recorded "live and clean" over a just-recorded musical track. "You get a reality and a bite that you would never get mimicking" the vocals, Parker says. The Commitments played almost all of the instruments. The DVD mix keeps the music up front, mostly in three channels.
One of the group's best performances didn't make the film proper. Robert Arkins, who played the manager, was in fact the most accomplished musician and almost played the part of the lead singer. A terrific music video has him on vocals, roaring through "Treat Her Right" with the full band.
Another extra catches up with the actors, most of them still making music and a few performing with a knockoff band. New songs from Arkins and singer Strong play over the footage. A documentary about Dublin and its economic woes helps put the story in perspective. A making-of is interesting but heavy on clips.
Parker's commentary strikes just the right notes. It's a fine example of how a filmmaker's memories and perspectives can add another dimension to a movie that fans think they know. Send this talk straight to the DVD hall of fame.
Richard Linklater and Jack Black talk a lot about the imperative to rock hard, but their commentary for "School of Rock" is more Milli Vanilli than Iggy Pop. The director and star wander through the feature-length talk, mostly reminding each other what went on during filming. Only die-hard fans need tune in.
Fortunately, there are some decent DVD extras that pull together the story of "School of Rock" (retail $29.99, Paramount).
The kids in the band did indeed rock, as shown in rehearsal footage in the docu "Lessons Learned." "I've played with a lot of musicians, but (this) band -- I put 'em up against them any day," Black testifies. "Oh yeah, and they're 10 years old!" The kids had some instrumental help with the movie's big number, but it doesn't sound as if they needed it.
In another extra, Black rallies the mob of extras from the concert scene as he tapes an impassioned plea to Led Zeppelin seeking use of "Immigrant Song." "It may sound corny, but it worked," the comic reports.
The blackboard that Black's character used to teach the children the history of rock doesn't stay onscreen long, but a lot of audience members wished it had. A DVD-ROM extra re-creates the board with links to blurbs about the various musicians. Linklater says his cast and crew spent weeks vetting the chart to make sure the right acts made the cut.
Too bad there wasn't more on this DVD about rock history: The disc misses a great opportunity to help young viewers learn about the music it hypes. There are a few PSAs for VH1's Save the Music campaign.
Youngsters will enjoy the group commentary from some of the child actors ("A" for effort) as well as their video diary from the Toronto film fest.
The video (sold widescreen or full-screen) and audio (Dolby Digital, DTS) are fine, up to major studio standards. (For the record: Linklater notes that his film is called "The School of Rock," as shown in the titles, but the promo powers at Paramount improvised with the cleaner "School of Rock.")
Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter
Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter
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