Everyone wants to relive a magical cinematic moment. A film or theater or evening that just makes one want to return back in time. For me, one such experience was the first time I saw The Commitments (1991). It was a film that spoke endless depths of sincerity both in spoken and sung dialogue. When it first came out, Alan Parker’s film became a bonafide cultural phenomenon with the soundtrack album climbing up the charts. People were hungry for authentic-sounding music, tired of the hedonistic hairspray bands of the 1980’s. To its credit, the film still stands as an unabashed love letter to the belief that music can change your life and make a difference.
Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) aspires to be the manager of the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band, with only one kind of music in mind: Soul. Disgusted with the current state of bands in Ireland, this determined young man decides to assemble an old school Dublin soul band in the tradition of greats like Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. Jimmy holds auditions out of his parents’ house (in which he still lives, by the by) and soon assembles his group of young musicians whom he can’t wait to mould. With the help of Joey “The Lips” Fagan (John Murphy), the only veteran musician in the band, Jimmy begins to whip the rest of the members into stage-ready shape.
One of the things that makes The Commitments work so well is its brazen cast of relative unknowns. These actors come with no preconceived notions or baggage that name actors bring to the table (Bruce McDonald’s rock ‘n’ roll movie, Hard Core Logo, would also successfully employ the same technique). With the exception of two band members, they were all real musicians, lending the film fresh authenticity. Parker showed his aptitude for working with first-time actors with Fame (1980) and did it again, more genuinely, with this film.
For such a large cast, all of the characters are beautifully realized. From the egotistical lead singer, Decco (Andrew Strong), to minor characters such as Jimmy’s Elvis-worshipping father (Colm Meaney), Dick Clement, Ian Le Frenais and Roddy Doyle’s screenplay provides each character with his or her own unique character tics that define them. From Rabbitte’s colorful one-on-one interviews to Decco’s repugnant outbursts, the actors and their counterparts provide hit after hit.
The Commitments has been said to be a musical with dialogue intervals, due to the infusion of music everywhere. Everyone in the community is in touch with music. From the local gangster (“Everything’s shite since Roy Orbison died.”) to Mr. Rabbitte (“Elvis wasn’t a Cajun! That’s fuckin’ blasphemy!”), it’s in everyone. It is Jimmy who articulates the very essence that drives the film when he delivers an impassioned speech about the power of soul music. “Sure it’s basic and it’s simple but it’s something else. Something special. Cos it’s honest. There’s no fucking bullshit. It sticks its neck out and says it straight from the heart.” What unites The Commitments’ band members; however, is really a bit more than a love of music. This band is a way out for them. It is a release for them. It is something that they can all look forward to, something that represents possibilities. Bernie (Bronagh Gallagher), stuck working a chippie van, or Decco, the bus conductor — they’re all in need.
The dialogue, in particular the banter between the members of the band, is another strength of the film. Their conversations are littered with “familiar profanities” that are utterly convincing considering that these kids (the actors, that is) come from the urban slums of Dublin. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the film’s source material is Roddy Doyle’s book of the same name. Finally, the best part of the film is the music. The concert footage (and its corresponding audio) was recorded live, which separates it from films that use previously recorded music that always sounds too polished, too lip synched. There is a rawness and energy to the musical sequences that perfectly captures the experience of seeing a band live. This is due in large part to how the musicians perform, most surprisingly Andrew Strong, who was only 16 years old at the time and had a voice made to sing gritty soul music. It is also due to how Parker photographs them all. He uses snap zooms and employs many close-ups of their faces and them playing their instruments. It gives these sequences a you-are-there immediacy that is very effective.
After making several Hollywood films in the United States, Parker “wanted to do something that wasn’t so colossally expensive ... I wanted to do something lighter and with music.” While making Come See the Paradise (1990), two British screenwriters, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, turned him on to Doyle’s 1986 novel The Commitments. Parker felt that he understood and empathized with the characters. Clement, La Frenais and Doyle ended up writing the screenplay together.
Parker started work on the film in the summer of 1990 when he flew into Dublin to hold auditions. It was important to him that all of his actors be musicians first. Casting directors assembled 64 bands from Dublin’s club scene and after seeing approximately 3,000 musicians, Parker picked 12 for the main cast. According to the director, the musicians were cast “to be pretty close to the kinds of personalities they already had, so they’re not playing roles outside of themselves.”
The Commitments received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “The result is a movie that doesn't lead anywhere in particular and may not have a profound message — other than that it's hell at the top, however low the top may be. But the movie is filled with life and energy, and the music is honest. The Commitments is one of the few movies about a fictional band that's able to convince us the band is real and actually plays together.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “The Commitments finds Mr. Parker again doing what he does expertly: assembling a group of talented newcomers, editing snippets of their exploits into a hyperkinetic jumble, and filling the air with song.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “The Commitments finds Mr. Parker again doing what he does expertly: assembling a group of talented newcomers, editing snippets of their exploits into a hyperkinetic jumble, and filling the air with song.” However, Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “The idea that the Commitments are doing something revolutionary by ‘bringing’ soul to Dublin is downright insulting. In Parker's hands, soul music becomes little more than a self-serving metaphor — an easy symbol for ‘commitment’ and integrity. His film celebrates musical daring without having a shred of it.”
The Commitments refuses to resort to sappy altruism. This music isn’t going to save the world but it does enrich these characters’ lives for a brief moment in time. Apparently, other people felt the same way. After the film debuted in theaters, the band in the film actually toured (and continues to tour to this day albeit with only some of the original members) the country and people fell in love with the movie and the music. The Commitments ranks right up there with Hard Core Logo (1996) and Almost Famous (2000) as one of the greatest films about a fictional band’s rise and fall.
Schoemer, Karen. “A Film Pursues the Redemptive Power of Rock and Roll.” The New York Times. August 18, 1991.
Smith, Stephen. “In A Departure from his ‘more serious’ films, Alan Parker tells the story of an Irish soul band, and finds himself empathizing with the characters.” Globe and Mail. August 15, 1991.