THE COMMITMENTS (1991)
Director Alan Parker (Fame) has again taken a tale of struggle and set it to music. This time the story comes from Irish writer Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown series, set in working-class Northside Dublin circa the early 1990s. Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) dreams of becoming the leader of a band that plays 50s and 60s American Soul music, no easy task for white Irish kids raised on U2 and Sinead O’Connor. He justifies his mission by telling his recruited hopefuls that the “Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin.” The new band members accept this mission statement grudgingly at first, but their working-class origins afford them a previously unseen connection to the songs of Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. Before long, we see them comically boasting that they are indeed black and proud.
The group is a volatile crew of Irish working-class youngsters, some gathered from an amusing American Idol-esque session of ridiculous auditions. Their lead singer is Deco (Andrew Strong), an impressively boorish bus conductor. Bernie (Bronagh Gallagher), with her overburdened mother and too many siblings, reluctantly agrees to become one of their three backup singers. The quirkiest member of the band is Joey “The Lips” Fagan (Johnny Murphy), a mysterious 45-year-old trumpet player. His stories and frequent references to his buddy The Lord God make him a possible inspiration for Mad Stephen the Irish fighter in Braveheart.
Perhaps the most interesting character in the movie is Northside Dublin itself. Parker and cinematographer Gale Tattersall (The Jack Bull, “House M.D.”) render the streets, cinderblock buildings, clotheslines and dingy staircases of this world with tremendous familiarity, as if we had grown up in these very neighborhoods. There is one especially amusing and skillfully crafted scene involving a boy intent on taking a horse up the elevator of a run-down apartment building. The scene works both as a funny throwaway gag and as a very sober illustration of the absurdity that accompanies poverty.
Colm Meaney provides a pleasing performance as the Elvis worshipping J. Rabbitte Sr., and Johnny Murphy is brilliant as Joey the Lips. For the most part, however, the film showcases the actors’ formidable musical talents rather than their considerable lack of acting skills. This is perhaps forgivable, however, because Jimmy’s quest to elevate the depressed Irish working-class with the music of Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding stands up on the movie’s soundtrack alone. This is tremendous music. Andrew Strong, at only 16 years of age, sings with a phenomenal Joe Cocker/Van Morrison voice. The backup singers blossom into sultry soul “chanteuses” for Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools.”
In the end, we see the results of Jimmy’s attempted musical revolution. Was it a dream or an obsession? What’s the difference? For a band and bandleader who have worked as hard as they have, where has their hope, persistence, and faith taken them? Parker answers most of these questions in a somewhat obvious, heavy-handed manner. Later films such as Peter Cattaneo’s The Full Monty do a better job of showing us the triumph of hope over working-class hopelessness through music. There is food for thought here, but it may have already been eaten up by the time the final credits roll by. As a musical experience, it’s a wonderful movie. See it for Andrew Strong’s singing alone. As a motion picture, however, I think it misses the mark. The final accomplishment is sometimes exciting but overall a bit dullish. See this film if you’re in the mood for some great music, and for the quirky comedy, but don’t expect great acting.
Copyright © 2007 Ivan Velasco, Jr.