St. Patrick’s Day may have come and gone, but it’s never too late to celebrate one particular film of Dublin’s musical scene, circa 1990. The story of the fictional band known as The Commitments mirrors the history of literally thousands of real-life bands throughout the British Isles. In industrial cities especially, from Dublin to Liverpool to Glasgow, unemployment among young people was remarkably high at the time, allowing precious few dreams for them to pursue with any realistic hope of breaking out from the bleakness. But one of those dreams has come via music, which has been a compelling outlet for restless (and sometimes talented) young people on both sides of the Atlantic since the late 1950s. In the eyes of many of those unemployed and disillusioned young people, music was an equal opportunity gateway to success, albeit with no guarantees.
The Commitments is simply a laugh-out loud funny and wonderful film, directed by Alan Parker (Fame, Mississippi Burning) who vividly captures the sights, sounds, and spirit of working-class Dublin as it was at the dawn of the 1990s. He helps us understand the circumstances under which bands sprang up in hope of finding a way out. The screenplay, by Roddy Doyle (based on his 1987 novel, part of his Barrytown Trilogy) was co-written by the legendary British comedy writing team of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais.
The story first introduces us to Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins), a young, ambitious music aficionado determined to organize and manage a soul band, and unwilling to let anything get in his way (whenever he finds himself alone, such as taking a bath, he carries on imaginary interviews with reporters eager to hear about his path to success). Jimmy places an ad in the local paper and, in a hilarious montage, is besieged with musical hopefuls of every size, shape, and style knocking at his door for an audition. Gradually, he sifts through Dublin’s more colorful characters and finds those with the most promise. He discovers his lead singer, Deco Cuffe (Andrew Strong)
singing in a drunken stupor at a wedding reception. Deco is a coarse, obnoxious slob, but Jimmy quickly spots his natural singing talent, and even a warped sort of charisma (Strong’s singing voice, facial expressions and body language instantly bring Joe Cocker to mind, even though Strong was only sixteen when the film was shot).
A bit later in the audition process, a trumpet player, Joey “The Lips” Fagan (the late Johnny Murphy), arrives. At least twice as old as the other fledgling band members, Joey talks like a homespun evangelist, and may or may not have played alongside most of the soul greats when he was in his prime, as he often claims.
As Jimmy assembles the band, he makes clear one unwavering rule: they are to play American soul music, and only soul music. He has no use for anything else. “Soul music is the music of the working class,” he explains,adding that it is the only real music Dubliners will connect with. He even has the group study films of James Brown performing onstage, including his oft-repeated mock collapse from prostration, and being escorted off by his assistants, draped in his cape (“He’s hurt, look–they’re helping him off!”) Jimmy prods them to aspire to such lofty heights, but the task has them all shifting uncomfortably. “Aren’t we a bit…white for that kind of thing?” comes an inquiry. “The Irish are the blacks of Europe,” Jimmy explains, “and Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the north side Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin.” He concludes by telling the bewildered band, “So say it once, and say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud.”
Once Joey christens the band The Commitments (which soon includes their three fetching female singers, The Commitmentettes), Jimmy guides them through the uncertain early stages of rehearsals, in a hall above the neighborhood poolroom, as he also finds venues for them to play. As if that’s not enough, he also needs to keep peace among all ten members.
What makes this such an enjoyable film, aside from the music–classics by the likes of Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Wilson Pickett, as sung and performed by the cast themselves–is seeing this ragtag group of hardened, foulmouthed, but well-meaning and likeable young people working together to realize their common dream, recognizing the need to set aside personality conflicts, egos, and jealousies for the good
of the band. This is particularly evident in their attitude towards Deco, whom they detest as a person, but who has earned their respect for his abilities as a singer, and who can whip just about any crowd into a joyous frenzy.
However, the band’s drummer, Bill Mooney (Dick Massey) becomes so fed up with Deco that he quits the band, taking his drums and van (which has served as their transportation) with him. The incident rattles Jimmy, but the band carries on, replacing Bill with their “savage” roadie, Mikah, who takes his aggressions out on the drums when he’s not enjoying a good barroom brawl.
As the group gains local recognition and support, it becomes impossible for us not to pull for them and cheer them on, hoping they’ll be able to suppress their intensifying personal clashes as they continue their climb. Above all,
the music is the thing, and the musical performances themselves are full of energy and conviction. In addition to Strong, the fabulous and beautiful Maria Doyle as Natalie shines as she takes a turn or two on lead vocals, as does Angeline Ball. Considering how most of the cast at the time were either musicians with no acting experience, or actors with no musical experience, they are all superb, and gel wonderfully together, including those in smaller, quirky roles (you might recognize Colm Meany from the Star Trek TV spinoffs as Jimmy Rabbitte’s dad, and a young Andrea Corr, of the musical group the Corrs, as his younger sister).
So, if you’ve somehow missed out on this musical treat (which concludes with a thrilling, adrenaline-pumping performance) since its release in August of 1991, its about time to discover it for yourself; or, if it’s been a
number of years since you’ve seen it, revisit these underdog characters and enjoy their victories and defeats all over again (here are two clips to whet your appetite). Either way, make the commitment to see it.
Until next time…