He said it once and said it loud… So what became of Jimmy Rabbitte?
After a chance encounter landed him the lead role in one of Ireland's most iconic films, Robert Arkins was tipped for global stardom. Now, 25 years on, The Commitments star tells our reporter why he chose music over fame
Published 02/10/2016 | 02:30
As Robert Arkins stared out the coach window at the dazzling lights and baying mob clustered around Dublin's Savoy cinema, awaiting the cast for the world premiere of big-screen musical sensation, The Commitments, he felt oddly unsettled. Even a little apathetic.
On a dry September evening in 1991, the 21-year-old watched as his elated co-stars, a collection of unknowns - Angeline Ball, Glen Hansard, Andrew Strong, Maria Doyle Kennedy and Bronagh Gallagher - performed for the flashbulbs, drinking in the overnight adulation.
Arkins wanted no part of it. "I nipped out the emergency exit at the back of the bus and slipped round the other side, away from the press and crowds and watched people posing and lapping up the attention.
"And I just wasn't up for it. I didn't like the idea of drawing focus on myself. I knew I didn't give a s*** about celebrity or fame.
"Or maybe," he pauses, "it's because I just wasn't prepared for it."
This month marks 25 years since Alan Parker's iconic, rabble-rousing movie was unleashed upon the world. Adapted by Roddy Doyle from his best-selling first chapter in The Barrytown trilogy, the story of Ireland's greatest soul band - summoning the Motown spirit of Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett against a rain-streaked backdrop of Dublin's recession-ravaged inner city - created a pop culture tsunami.
Young Arkins gave a standout performance as appealing hero Jimmy Rabbitte, the ambitious band manager leading the entire movement, determined to break out of the poverty of Dublin's working classes.
Through his gall and self-assured belief in the gospel of 1960s soul music, he succeeds in transforming a rag-tag group of warring, unskilled singers and musicians into a silky smooth outfit, delivering fresh vigour and slick urban grit to classic hits, In the Midnight Hour, Try a Little Tenderness and Mustang Sally.
A significant moment in Irish film, the combination of biting gags and pleasurably caustic one-liners - "say it once, say it proud, I'm black and I'm proud" - interspersed between stirring musical performances saw the nation take The Commitments to its heart.
But for Arkins and the fledgling cast however, it was a harsh education in the glory and gain of instant fame. Candidly, the now 47-year-old looks back at the moment where he first felt in over his head.
At the premiere after-party in Dublin's long defunct Waterfront club, he found himself cornered by a Hollywood producer. "I'm talking with him, a very big name who's won Oscars and stuff, about my next step; whether it would be music or acting. It was a case of 'you need to decide which'.
"And then he started talking about how he spent a year in a log cabin in the mountains to figure out what he should do, where he should go. And that I should do the same.
"I literally had lawyers, managers on one side and all my student drunk mates on free drink, chewing and slobbering all over me, on the other. In the middle of this party, to try and take that on and take it seriously, it was so 'California'.
"And it was a weird question to ask me. I thought: 'Why do I need to choose? Who says I have to?'"
Eighteen months beforehand, music had been Arkins' prime focus. Performing with band Housebroken - formed when he was just out of Rosmini Community School on Grace Park Road - the Drumcondra man had previously enjoyed early, somewhat unwanted, success.
"We won the Sunday World Bandslam competition in 1988, when we were only three months together," he says. "And suddenly, Louis Walsh was traipsing around after me and I just thought, 'what the f*** is this?' If that's happening, we were doing something very wrong. We had to change all the music we played."
Meanwhile, over in Hollywood, Mississippi Burning director Alan Parker was collaborating with renowned Irish casting agents Roz and John Hubbard on new film, The Commitments.
Pursuing a collection of fresh new musical talent with an open audition call in Hot Press magazine, previous acting experience was an unnecessary requirement.
For Arkins, convenient fate would intervene. "Daragh O'Malley, the Irish guy from Withnail and I, well he had become an agent and he had a girl on his books who was going out with the brother of the keyboard player in my band. And somehow he arranged for us to go along to the Hubbards' house to meet and audition. And that was it. Out of the five of us, they ended up calling me back."
What followed was a series of rigorous follow-up auditions. Parker watched Arkins perform with Housebroken at their Sunday night slot in Slattery's on Capel Street, fuelling rumours he was considered for the role of gregarious lead singer, 'Deco' Cuffe, eventually secured by Andrew Strong.
"The only one who knows that is Alan. I never asked him. As far as I'm aware, I always read for Jimmy, no other part. I could play the trumpet but I wasn't old and bald, so I didn't go for Joey ['The Lips' Fagan, eventually played by the late Johnny Murphy] either. But Van Morrison did, even though he plays sax, not trumpet."
The director eventually made his choice. Arkins won the lead and life was about to change drastically. "I got a call, miraculously from my agent - who told me he was my agent that day - saying: 'You need to come back, you got the role as Jimmy Rabbitte.' And all I could think was: 'How did this guy get my number?' Because I never met him before, but I thought that must be how these things work."
In what Alan Parker has described as "a joyous 53-day shoot - down to the lack of star ego and the company of these brilliant kids" - production between August and October 1990 took in locations across the capital, from Sheriff Street, to Ballsbridge, Kilbarrack and Portobello. "We were all his kids," Arkins remembers, "taking in this amazing experience. But never really knowing what was to come of it."
The Commitments enjoyed a rapturous reaction on home turf and a modest cinema release in the States, earning €12.5million. A BAFTA win and Golden Globe nomination, both for Best Picture, bolstered its buzz within the industry.
Hollywood eyed Arkins as a potential investment and the young Dubliner soon found himself perched in front of agents, asking the same loaded question - film or music? "That was unsettling," he says, "it made me paranoid. I'd be sitting in these LA offices and that question would come up and I'd think: 'Why is this so serious, what difference does this make?' But back then, you had to choose. That was probably the initial downfall after the hype of the film came out."
Without a suitable support network, Arkins was adrift in a sea of deals and contracts. "I wasn't prepared, I was too young. There was no one holding me up, no one looking after me. And I couldn't take to people [in LA], I found them fake.
"I'm sure [acting] offers would have come in, if I had decided to go with an agency but I didn't because of the choice I was being forced into. I'd just spent the last five or six years playing music. I was in a band but you're telling me now I have to choose whether I want to be an actor or a musician - that's an easy one."
With a record deal on the table from MCA, he followed his passion and relocated to London to work with Dave Allen, producer for The Cure. But a harried schedule brought problems.
"Musically I was prepared, lyrically I wasn't. They're not my thing, and it would have been better if we'd slowed down. Everything was rushed forward. Within a blink of an eye, all the money ran out and we hadn't finished the album.
"And me being young, not having a manager, not realising that when things fall apart back then, I just assumed 'that's it, I'm done.' It took me years to realise, it wasn't over. That deal crashed and collapsed but there were plenty more available. But it didn't cross my mind."
Through the dejection, a resilient Arkins stayed in London, working beside producer Guy Chambers, who would eventually be a close collaborator with Robbie Williams.
And then, his personal life took an unforeseen turn. "My girlfriend and I were pregnant," he quietly offers. "So we moved back to Dublin because I didn't want to raise a kid in London. And then I was a single father within 10 months of that, after he was born. So that took a lot out of me."
His girlfriend left Arkins and their baby son, Milo. "She wanted to party but I had to be responsible. I was 25 and, for me, I was kissing my career goodbye. My hands were full. That was it."
Now married to wife of 10 years Vanessa, they live in Dublin's Grand Canal Quay with their seven-year-old daughter Aoise and a 22 year-old Milo. "Who's now older than when I was when The Commitments came out," Arkins remarks poignantly.
Currently working as a music composer for commercials and artistic projects since earning his degree at Trinity in Composition, he's working on designs for a forthcoming album. "I plan to put out something soon. I'd like to do it tomorrow but it's to do with lyrics, I can never let anything go unless I'm completely happy with it. To write a piece takes a lot more time and effort than to write a commercial song. I'm going to launch myself, not under my name but under my band name. We just have to get into the studio. But unfortunately, I need some cash."
Two movie soundtracks shifting over 12 million copies worldwide resulted in explosive live gigs, a reunion tour for the 20th anniversary and a West End stage hit for The Commitments. However, Arkins is adamant his album release will have no direct connections to the movie. "Nobody wants to be a has-been, nobody wants to be hanging on to any coat-tails.
"That in itself, puts me off doing any of this. It makes me want to go into my shell. But we get older, I can cast off a few chips on the shoulder and move on. There's still life to deal with, kids and being a husband, you've got to take things as they come."
After a remarkable 25-year legacy, Arkins appears to have mixed feelings on reflection. "It's hot and cold, sometimes it's a good thing. And sometimes I run a mile."
Following the success of the reunion tour in 2011, could they all be persuaded to reform again? He sighs.
"Somebody tried. The deal was, we all should do it. It was all or nothing. And Glen [Hansard], I heard saying on the radio, how some of the cast are like the characters. If you didn't have a certain person, there would be no point."
On further questioning, he reveals it to be Andrew Strong who refused to regroup. "He's off celebrating the 25th anniversary himself," Arkins laughs. "He's always been doing it, that's his thing. That's his bag. But I don't know. I think we all might have had enough at this point."
'The Commitments' 25th Anniversary Edition is available now on DVD and Blu-ray from RLJ Entertainment. 'Roddy Doyle's The Commitments' is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from October 12-29, see bordgaisenergytheatre.ie
Destination anywhere? Where The Commitments are now…
1 Félim Gormley
Having grown up in a musical family, Gormley's sax-playing skills earned him the part of Dean Fay in the film. He went on to play for James Brown, Rod Stewart and Elton John, and now performs in a six-piece wedding band, the Controversial Allstars.
2 Bronagh Gallagher
The Derry native was just 17 when she was cast as feisty backing singer Bernie McLoughlin. Gallagher followed up her breakthrough role with minor parts in Pulp Fiction and Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, before landing a number of big-budget TV dramas and starring in War Horse at London's National Theatre. However, her real passion is music, and between acting gigs, she writes and performs her own soul-pop music. Her third album, Gather Your Greatness, was released in May.
3 Johnny Murphy
Despite being the only cast member who couldn't play an instrument, Murphy is rumoured to have beaten out the likes of Van Morrison and Rory Gallagher for the role of trumpeter Joey 'The Lips' Fagan. He had made a name for himself as a stage actor before joining the film, and after The Commitments he went on to star in Into the West, War of the Buttons and Angela's Ashes, as well as a successful stage production of Waiting for Godot. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, and passed away due to respiratory failure following a brief illness in February of this year.
4 Glen Hansard
Recently claiming he was "burned" by The Commitments experience, after his role as Outspan Foster, Hansard returned to play with his band, The Frames, and went on to enjoy chart success with albums, For The Birds and Burn The Maps. As a side project, he formed the folk group The Swell Season with Czech singer and future girlfriend Marketa Irglova. The pair starred in and wrote the score for John Kearney's romantic fable, Once, going on to win an Oscar for Best Song - and giving a heartfelt acceptance speech that made global headlines. Hansard has since recorded two solo albums - one of which, Didn't He Ramble, was nominated for a Grammy Award this year - and had a guest role on NBC series, Parenthood. His current tour takes in the UK, US and Australia before he plays Vicar Street in November.
5 Ken McCluskey
Following his role as bass player Derek Scully, McCluskey took a small part in the film Far And Away with Tom Cruise, and went on to study acting in New York. On returning to Dublin, he formed the tribute band The Stars from the Commitments, a nine-piece group that tours the world playing soul music and songs from the film's soundtrack.
6 Andrew Strong
Stamping his trademark rasp on classics Mustang Sally and Mr Pitiful, there really was no question where the 42-year-old's path would take him. After playing lead singer Deco Cuffe, which scooped him a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actor, Strong played with the likes of Elton John, Bryan Adams, Ray Charles and The Rolling Stones. He landed a $500,000 recording deal with MCA and released album Strong. The subsequent album was shelved by the record label, and they parted ways. The singer had a number one hit in Denmark - where he lived for over a decade - with a cover of Ain't No Mountain High Enough in 2000. He reunited with The Commitments cast to play the 20th anniversary concerts. Currently based in Dublin, Andrew continues to record and to tour with his own band.
7 Michael Aherne
After playing pianist Steven Clifford in the film, Aherne chose not to pursue a career in showbusiness. In fact, the week after he completed filming, he went straight back to work as a civil engineer. He is now the head of transport development at the National Transport Authority, and has said watching his performance in The Commitments makes him "cringe".
8 Maria Doyle Kennedy
Enjoying successful dual careers since her acting debut as Natalie Murphy, Maria went onto deliver a string of high-profile performances in hit shows Queer as Folk, The Tudors, Orphan Black and Dexter. She starred in UTV's big-budget blockbuster, Titanic and became one of television's most hated women thanks to a wicked performance as evil Mrs Bates in Downton Abbey. Most recently, she starred in horror smash hit, The Conjuring 2. Musically, she had success alongside husband Kieran Kennedy with The Black Velvet Band before launching herself as a solo artist.
9 Dave Finnegan
Finnegan played drafted-in drummer and madman Mikah Wallace in the film, and now lives in Southend, England. He did not play drums on The Commitments records, so did not receive the royalties the other members did, which he struggled with. He spoke publicly about his alcoholism in 2009, but he is now sober and fronts the soul and 'psychobilly' bands Dave Finnegan and Mighty Mustang, and Dave Finnegan's Commitments.
10 Angeline Ball
After winning fans with her spirited turn as backing singer Imelda Quirke, Ball enjoyed initial success in Hollywood, landing a small yet significant role in My Girl 2 alongside Jamie Lee Curtis. Returning to this side of the pond, Ball scored leads in John Boorman's The General, Sean Walsh's Bloom and the Oscar-nominated Albert Nobbs. Having enjoyed a recurring role in hit Channel 4 series Shameless, Ball also presented a home-cooking series on TV3. She'll be seen next in the BBC's Irish Eastenders spin-off, Redwater.
11 Dick Massey (not pictured)
Massey, who played drummer Billy Mooney in the film, is one of only two original cast members who plays as part of the spin-off group, The Stars from the Commitments. During their tours over the past 20 years, he has taken to the stage with the likes of BB King, Wilson Pickett and Ben E King, among others.