“The Stars of the Commitments” first made their name in the iconic movie directed by Alan Parker.
Music Notes / By Colleen Taylor
Ken McCluskey has been playing the same role for nearly 30 years, but he’s not one bit tired. You might better know McCluskey as Derek “The Meatman” Scully from the film “The Commitments”—a role he landed at age 24 and has been recreating onstage ever since. Shortly after Alan Parker’s “The Commitments” (based on Roddy Doyle’s novel of the same name) became a instant hit in 1991 and launched the cast members to a surprising, sudden fame, some of the cast formed “The Stars from the Commitments,” a musical act that brings the film’s particular brand of Dublin soul music to audiences worldwide. Later this month, some of those stars — McCluskey, Robert Arkins (Jimmy Rabbitte), Michael Aherne (piano player Steve “The Soul Surgeon” Clifford) and Ronan Dooney (trumpet on the Commitments soundtrack albums) with Antoinette Dunleavy, Paula Size, vocals, Andreas Nolan, bass guitar, Serge Stavila, saxophone, and Paul Maher, drums — will tour the Northeast from Boston to Danbury, Conn, nostalgically recreating one of Ireland’s best films for American fans.
If you’re wondering how McCluskey and crew can still sell out gigs based off songs from a film that is now 27-years-old, all you need to do is google “best Irish films” and you’ll find your answer. “The Commitments” is the first film listed, ahead of “My Left Foot” and yes, even “The Quiet Man.” But why “The Commitments”? I could offer a number of theories, but I thought better to ask the men who have seen its cultural impact firsthand. For McCluskey, the film is the Irish version of the American Dream. He says it tells that timeless narrative of kids in a working class neighborhood in Dublin who “want to raise their expectations of life and the music lets them be part of something.” The bassist also pointed out that the film itself was revolutionary for depictions of Irishness onscreen: it portrayed an authentic characterization of Dublin contrasting the more staged Irishisms of cinema decades prior. Pianist Michael Aherne had clearly pondered the film’s popularity before, offering an astute reading of its socioeconomic context: “Back in 1991, the world economy was kicking up, and people look back on that time as a good time in their life. I think there’s a lot more angry stuff in the news these days, but then people felt more positive, kept their heads up—it was so in Ireland in the ’90s.” Despite the comic and satiric intonations of Roddy Doyle’s initial text, the film has transformed into a cultural object resonating with hope and nostalgia for audiences today. But its continued relevance might have a simpler explanation as well: McCluskey and Aherne both point out that the film was great because the music was brilliant, timeless. After all, as many have said before, soul music never dies.
Nowadays, we’re used to the story that fame ruins lives, but Ken McCluskey and Michael Aherne affirm that “The Commitments” irrevocably, positively impacted their personal lives. Both musicians view the film as an invaluable opportunity. For one thing, it made McCluskey into a world traveler, touring all over the globe, including North America, Africa, India, Australia, Singapore and South America, among many other places. For Aherne, who is a civil engineer by day, the film and his resulting career with “the Stars” has given him a wider, diversified social perspective: “I’ve met musicians all over the world, seen what it’s like to be in the company of people who live a completely different life.” The Stars from the Commitments have toured internationally, played largescale venues like the Point (now the 3Arena), and perhaps—though they wouldn’t admit it themselves—helped to make the original film a continuingly relevant cultural artifact.
The Stars from the Commitments bring the film’s energy, warmth, and charisma to life with their concert, drawing fans of the film and fans of their own music to the ticket booths. But it’s not just songs from the film that you’ll hear—the band dabbles in other classics too, R&B tunes, hits from the 1950s and ’60s. Both McCluskey and Aherne have diverse musical tastes and aim to keep their ears open to all kinds of different genres, from rock and hip hop to Christian music and trad. In the lead up to the American tour, the stars are looking forward to their visit. Both McCluskey and Aherne lived in the States, and Aherne is particularly drawn to an Autumnal New England like the rest of us.
On top of some great music, classic hits from a classic Irish film, the show put on by the Stars from the Commitments offers an opportunity to reflect on why particular cultural artworks, and not others, seem to carry on without a foreseeable expiry date. Why, for instance, do we still sing “Mo Ghile Mear” while other 18th-century songs have been lost to history? Why do we still go to see “Playboy of the Western World,” read Joyce’s “The Dead” every Christmas, or return again and again to Paul Henry’s landscapes? Why, too, do we continue to view a funny little film about quirky Dublin kids in a soul band as one of the best Irish movies of all time? The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind—it’s in the music.
You can catch the Stars from the Commitments in Cambridge, Boston on Halloween night or in Danbury, Conn. at the Palace Theatre on Nov. 3. They will also be playing gigs in Virginia and Pennsylvania. More information at starsfromthecommitments.com.