An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: The Commitments (1991)
- Credit: Archant
Films with re-watch value, movies with a unique quality, will become the classics of the future. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies that may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.
The Commitments; dir: Alan Parker; starring: Robert Arkins, Andrew Strong, Angeline Ball, Maria Doyle, Bronagh Gallagher, Glen Hansard, Felim Gormley, Johnny Murphy. Cert: 15; (1991)
The Commitments is one of the most immersive, delightful, feelgood movies of all time. Thanks to the brilliant writing of Roddy Doyle (with scriptwriters Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais), perceptive direction from Alan Parker and the inspired semi-pro casting of genuine actor-musicians you really do get a feeling of what it must be like to be in a fledgling band in Dublin during the early ‘90s.
As an audience you are drawn in to their world, you understand the community they are a part of and you feel part of their extended friendship group. Although the larger-than-life characters that make up the band form the focus of the film, it is the engaging presence of Robert Arkins as their wannabe manager Jimmy Rabbitte, with his fantasy documentary commentary, that makes that initial personal contact.
These are all believable people, charismatic, talented people who we want to spend time with and yet for all their promise we can see the seeds of their own self-destruction starting to grow, almost from the beginning, in the form of ego, personality clashes and petty jealousies. This looks like real-life.
It’s also about dreaming, it’s about finding a way out of a dull, hum-drum existence and finding yourself. The band gives them hope, a sense of self-worth, some ambition and a growing understanding of who they are and what they want out of life.
On the surface the film works because it is jam-packed with great music which is excitingly performed on screen but, really, the film works because it is an extended character study of a half dozen very different personalities and the way they interact with one another. From the very opening minutes of the film we are emotionally invested in the make-up of this band.
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We see them living their mundane lives and it is the entrepreneurial Jimmy Rabbitte who brings them together and gives them a collective identity. One of the best scenes in the film has Jimmy sitting the newly formed group down in a video store and he shows them footage of James Brown on stage. This is what he wants them to become. His lyrical, eloquent, impassioned speech gives them a sense of purpose. He says: “The Irish are the blacks of Europe. Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. North Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin.”
This statement provides the emotional heart of the film. The dynamic within the band is what drives the movie forward. They are all good, raw musicians, instinctive rather than well-schooled, but it is Jimmy that forces them to rehearse and become something-like a professional outfit.
He hires veteran trumpet player Joey the Lips (Johnny Murphy) to be father-figure – he allegedly played on an album by Wilson Pickett, so immediately gains respect and amazingly manages to bed all three of the backing singers, who provide the band with the necessary powerhouse vocals.
The band’s front man, the obnoxious Deco Cuffe, vividly brought to life by 16 year old Andrew Strong, has an outstanding voice and has the look and sound of a young Meatloaf. Strong, who is the son of a real Dublin singer, was a real find for both the film and the fictional band. He has an amazing presence and provides that all-important element of conflict to the story.
Parker is also very clever how he presents the music. Having put together a band of real actor-musicians, he has the good sense to let them play. Most music movies or bio-pics only give the audience flashes of performance – usually in the form of a montage or inter-woven with dramatic off-stage incidents. Parker presents The Commitments almost like a documentary and he knows that music lies at the very heart of the story. He has a band that he knows can play and so he lets them play.
He tells the story of the band almost through key musical numbers. He lets the band play complete numbers without jump-cutting into the next scene. At the beginning they are not terribly good but the quickly improve, always a little rough and ready around the edges but that’s part of their charm, until towards the end they are triumphant. Hearing them come together to perform killer versions of In The Midnight Hour and Try A Little Tenderness should have you fighting the urge to get to your feet.
Alan Parker is an eclectic film-maker as Bugsy Malone, Mississippi Burning, Midnight Run and Fame prove but without doubt The Commitments is by far his most life-affirming film and can be re-visited time and again without fear of anyone getting tired of it.