Alan Parker says his tastes keep changing, and so do his movies

September 03, 1991|By Russell Smith | Russell Smith,Dallas Morning News

How is "Fame," the exuberant musical about gifted school kids, like "Midnight Express," the true story of a young American's harrowing experience in a Turkish prison? What do "Bugsy Malone," "Birdy" and "Pink Floyd: The Wall" have in common with "Angel Heart," "Mississippi Burning" and "Come See the Paradise"?

The answer is Alan Parker, the British director whose eclectic bent has taken him, most recently, to "The Commitments," a lighthearted, music-filled comedy about the rise and fall of a working-class Irish soul band.

"The French have a theory that a director makes 20 versions of the same film," Parker says. "I have very wide tastes. I grew up making movies; I started very young. So you change, and so do the films."

While the 47-year-old filmmaker has roamed a world of ideas and varying backdrops during his 16-year career, one stop he has yet to make, as a director, is his native England.

"When I grew up, I was largely influenced by American film," Parker says, "and, therefore, that seems to be the obvious thing I gravitated to, even though it was not a very conscious thing.

"I'm not that comfortable in England," he says. "That's probably why I eventually came to the United States and why, when I wanted to get back closer to my roots, I ended up not going all the way -- I actually stopped off in Dublin [where "The Commitments" is set].

"It's not to say that I won't go there [to England]," says Parker. "One day, I will, to make films. It's just that in this period of my life, it doesn't seem to be something that interests me."

What interested the director about "The Commitments" was its endearing tale of motley musicians with big dreams -- and the music itself, the '60s soul sound of which Parker has long been a fan.

The film's main character is the band's ambitious, energetic young manager and creator, Jimmy Rabbite (Robert Arkins). He assembles his players from the jobless streets of working-class Dublin and engineers their moment in the sun as the city's pre-eminent purveyors of soul.

With only a couple of exceptions, Parker cast the movie with musicians instead of actors and filmed the many musical segments live, giving them a convincingly raw, spontaneous feel.

"The people that I cast are very close to the characters they play in the film," he says. "I had made the decision fairly early on to try to make it as honest as possible, and, therefore, I didn't want to cheat the music. So, obviously, they had to be able to do it."

The director identified with the characters, he says, "in that I grew up in a very similar kind of working-class background." He does not, however, share their musical abilities.

"No, I was Jimmy Rabbite," Parker says. "I had the passion without the talent. I have four children, and two of them are musicians. So, vicariously, I live through them."

"The Commitments," if nothing else, is likely to give the director a breather from controversy. His two previous films, "Come See the Paradise" and "Mississippi Burning," drew protests from Japanese-Americans and African-Americans, respectively, because the films told tales of minority-centered struggles from the perspective of white lead characters.

"In the end, I AM white, you know? And, therefore, as a filmmaker, I can only do it from my point of view," Parker says. "That doesn't mean to say that I can't comment [on racial issues]. I think it's a racist argument to say that only the Japanese can make films about Japan. If you follow that argument to its ridiculous conclusion, then Shakespeare wouldn't have written 'Othello.'"

With "The Commitments" to promote, Parker has no immediate plans for new projects.

"I've done three films in three years," he says, "which is quite a lot, actually. So I'm not really in a rush to do anything.

"I actually enjoyed making 'The Commitments' more than I did most of my other films," says the director, "so I'm very protective of it."

To that end, he has just embarked on a 10-country tour to sing its praises in interviews -- "just to make sure it gets its best shot."

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