Rating: 9 / 10
Alan Parker’s delightful The Commitments, based on the first book in a trilogy by author Roddy Doyle, is a remarkable movie, easily one of the best films of 1991. There reasons why this simple little tale — detailing the rise and fall of a Dublin soul band — manages to endear itself so breezily and effortlessly onto its fans are practically endless. It could be the extensive and enjoyable music, the intimacy of the production, the veritas of its stark tone and gritty, realistic setting, or its lighthearted charm and abundance of sweet-natured (if unapologetically profanity-laced) comedy. Perhaps over-analysis does the film disfavor, because when you boil it down to its basic elements, The Commitments works because it is simply just a damn good movie.
With pristine clarity, most would-be musicians/singers/garage-band devotees remember the exact moment when they decided to chase their musical endeavors with unabashed, carefree abandon. For many, it’s one eminently catchy song that sets them on their way. For others, it’s the extroverted desire to perform; to unleash their creative energies and performance chops upon a receptive audience. And then there’s that large proportion of guys who are doing it mostly to chase tail. It happens. Once in awhile…
But for Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins), an optimistic, unemployed working-class Dubliner whose mundane existence seems to be inundated with consistently deep gray skies and muddy streets, the prospect of starting a band is driven by a desire to escape the colorless ordinary, to be a step above the rest of the “tossers.” Much to the skepticism of his Elvis-worshipping father (beautifully played by Colm Meaney), Jimmy begins to assemble his band, member by member. As manager of the group (newly christened “The Commitments”), Jimmy pulls together a mighty fine rhythm section: the band swells its rank to ten members of various musical talents. However, Jimmy has one stipulation: The Commitments are going to play nothing but soul. As he put it:
Soul is the music people understand. Sure it’s basic and it’s simple but it’s something else because it’s honest, that’s it. It sticks its neck out and says it straight from the heart. Sure there’s a lot of different music you can get off on but soul is more than that. It grabs you by the bollocks and lifts you above the shite.
As such, The Commitments pull ahead with their dream to become the biggest, baddest soul band in Dublin. Amid their ranks are the various personalities which either make a band great or doom it to oblivion. Of course, Jimmy is the manager with the vision, but we also have Joey ‘The Lips’ Fagan (Johnny Murphy), an elder trumpeter who not only claims to have performed alongside the legends of rock and soul, but spends most of his time seducing the young ladies of the band: the pampered and gorgeous Angeline (Imelda Quirke), the hardworking, baby-raising Bernie (Bronagh Gallagher), and the immensely talented Natalie (Maria Doyle). We have the vulgar, self-obsessed lead singer Deco (Andrew Strong), whose vile personal habits and odious personality mask a powerfully amazing voice, the constantly harassed and put-upon drummer Billy (Dick Massey), the only occasionally electrocuted bassist Derek (Kenneth McCluskey), the sax-playing Dean (Felim Gormley) who finds his jazz-leaning aspirations more satisfying than a rhythm role in the brass section, future Once mastermind Glen Hansard as intrepid guitarist Outspan Foster, and the psychotic, annihilate-first-ask-questions-later Mickah (Dave Finnegan), the band’s bouncer and eventual drummer. With that amount of talent and egocentrism going on, The Commitments often find themselves on the precipice, tottering between success and dissolution.
The tale of The Commitments is a fairly straightforward one, but the movie is exceptional in its storytelling. Director Alan Parker, who is clearly one of the most brilliant and underrated filmmakers in the business, has always excelled at both intimate storytelling and musicals. Parker’s gritty, hard-hitting and bleakly humorous stylings have added depth and potency to such films as Midnight Express, Birdy, Angel Heart, Mississippi Burning and the criminally overlooked Angela’s Ashes. His ability to craftily integrate music with narrative (Parker is a master of the montage) has resulted in such beloved and renown films as Fame, Pink Floyd The Wall, and the brilliant Evita. With The Commitments, Parker has possibly crafted the quintessential “Alan Parker” film. The movie contains all of his flourishes and stylistic cues, while all the time simply telling an entertaining story with believable, relatable characters. And I haven’t even begun to discuss the music, a host of soul/R&B covers that are too infectious to even begin to describe.
While the movie wasn’t a breakaway hit in North America, its art-house success and positive word-of-mouth led to two soundtrack albums, various premieres around the country, and a network television special. A sequel was even discussed, but eventually put by the wayside. This is, perhaps, a very good thing. The Commitments is lightning in a bottle, a simple tale that eschews high concept for genuine entertainment.