It’s strange how popular movies can just disappear from the culture after a while.
Last year I had a yen to revisit The Commitments, the late Alan Parker’s 1991 film about the brief rise and even more rapid fall of a working-class soul band in Dublin, Ireland.
It shouldn’t have been a big ask; The Commitments was a massive hit (well, everywhere outside the US) when it was released, pulling in big bucks, spawning two soundtrack albums and a brief, broader soul revival and setting the mould for populist Irish and British big screen comedies for years to come (Brassed Off, The Full Monty, and so on, all the way to Sing Street). The fictional band – or some variation thereof – still tours. There was the inevitable stage musical.
But no sign of the film – it was absent from the streaming services, not available to purchase digitally, and the disc was out of print. Hopes dashed, I spent a year in mourning only for The Commitments to hove into view, completely unheralded, at SBS On Demand. And I am here to tell you, brothers and sisters, that it has lost none of its heart, soul and guts.
It’s a simple story. Based on the 1987 debut novel by Roddy Doyle and set in Dublin’s hardscrabble northside neighbourhoods, The Commitments centres on would-be music promoter Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins), who hits upon the idea of forming a soul band.
Staging auditions in the family terrace house, much to the consternation of his grumpy, Elvis-obsessed father (a perfect Colm Meaney), he recruits a motley ensemble, including jobbing musos Outspan (Glen Hansard of The Frames) and Derek (Kenneth McCluskey), pretentious saxophonist Dean (Félim Gormley), pugnacious drummer Billy (Dick Massey), medical student pianist Steven (Michael Aherne) and obnoxious but wildly talented lead singer, Deco (Andrew Strong, only 16 at the time). Rounding out the group are veteran trumpeter Joey “The Lips” Fagan (Johnny Murphy), who claims God sent him and whose tales of a career playing with the greats are suspect, and back-up singers Imelda (Angeline Ball), Natalie (Maria Doyle) and Bernie (Bronagh Gallagher) – the Commitmentettes.
From there, Jimmy whips the band into shape, navigating interpersonal dramas, rapidly growing egos and a tangled web of sexual jealousies to forge a tight, powerful soul group – “the hardest working band in the world”. Alas, the infighting triumphs over the talent and after their finest gig yet, The Commitments flame out in spectacular fashion.
Which could be a downbeat ending, to be fair, but it’s the journey, not the destination. Here’s why The Commitments is worth revisiting.
It’s ‘Ride, Sally, ride’, not ‘Roid, Sally, roid’
Well, for one thing the music is great. There’s a mercenary reason underlying The Commitments’ quick trip from page to screen – the producers knew the soundtrack would be a banger, packed with Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin covers. The band in the movie is the band on the soundtrack, with Parker recording them live on set to maximise the feeling of authenticity. Of course, they’re dreadful to begin with, but we journey with them as they gradually get better, until their triumphant performance of “Mustang Sally” at their final gig – actually the only time we hear a whole song in the entire film.
It could be argued that a wholly white Irish band playing almost exclusively black songs (although Van Morrison gets a look-in) is an act of cultural appropriation, but the film smartly hangs a hat on the notion. Asked by one of the band whether doing so was a poor choice, Jimmy offers this clumsy but heartfelt rejoinder: “The Irish are the blacks of Europe. Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. The Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So, say it once and say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.”
It was cringey 30 years ago, and perhaps even more so today, but it’s also Jimmy trying to articulate something not a million miles away from the idea of intersectionality – though he wouldn’t know the word if you spelled it out for him. Much is made of the sheer act of will needed to wrap Irish voices around Black lyrics, and the uphill slog from the band’s early sheepish efforts to their later excellence, but at base The Commitments is about the common experiences and emotions that unite us.
‘Better being an unemployed musician than an unemployed pipe-fitter!’
It’s also working class as all get-out, something that still resonates today – perhaps even more in the current fraught financial climate. Hell, the characters of The Commitments aren’t working class, they’re non-working – saxophonist Dean voices his feelings about being an unemployed musician to Jimmy when they bump into each other in the dole queue.
Director Parker, who we should remember is English rather than Irish, evinces an incredible sense of place and culture in The Commitments, capturing street scenes of crowded markets, flapping washing lines and packs of roving kids with a practised eye for specificity. And yet The Commitments is no Ken Loach dirge; while it acknowledges the endemic poverty of its setting, it captures a certain rueful humour without ever descending to mawkishness. Circumstances are, by and large, dreadful, but never miserable – there’s always music.
And there is so much music in The Commitments, even apart from the band itself. We see a busker in the markets where we meet Jimmy. There’s Outspan and Derek’s terrible wedding band, And And And. Mr Rabbitte’s obsession with Elvis is not just a character quirk, but a beautiful and funny example of how art speaks to everyone. The audition sequence, a howlingly funny bit of business where Jimmy suffers through an endless stream of hopeless hopefuls, nonetheless showcases how much music is a part of the lives of the characters, and of the movie’s Dublin.
Which is why, for all that the movie’s band crashes and burns, The Commitments as a film remains an upbeat affair – the band, the music, was not a way out of their lives, but an integral, albeit elevated, part thereof. The Commitments is great because it reminds us that music, and indeed all art, is not some far off, ivory tower province of the great and the gifted; at its best, it belongs to the people, and to the streets.
The Commitments is now streaming at SBS On Demand.