The Commitments [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #50]

Mid-last year, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #50. 

Spoilers ahead.  

The Commitments

Directed by Alan Parker

Release Date:  August 14, 1991 (USA)
My age then:  21 years old

What it is about:  Young working-class Irish music fanatic Jimmy Rabbitte convinces his friends to start an Irish soul band called the Commitments, to speak to the heart of his people. With great effort he gathers together people of varying levels of talent and experience and begins to find performance opportunities for them. As they grow in their ability, however, they begin to fall apart in their relationships until they are no longer to sustain themselves as a band.

Starring Robert Arkins as Jimmy, Andrew Strong as Deco (the lead singer), Johnny Murphy as Joey “The Lips” Fagan (an experienced trumpet player who constantly tells stories of having played with many other famous musicians), Dave Finnegan as Mickah (the band’s bouncer that becomes their second drummer), Félim Gormley as Dean (a saxophonist who really wants to play jazz), and Michael Aherne, Angeline Ball, Bronagh Gallagher, Glen Hansard, Dick Massey, Angeline Ball, Maria Doyle and Kenneth McCluskey as other band members. Colm Meaney appears as Jimmy’s father.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I knew it was a British or Irish music-based film, and that it had a good reputation, but not much more. I’d seen The Snapper, in which Colm Meaney sort of plays the same character. I wasn’t really sure what genre to expect with this film.

Reality: Well, as far as genre is concerned, The Commitments is definitely a comedy, but not one that forces its jokes on the audience. Instead it just takes us into its Irish working class environment and introduces us to a slew of characters, who for the most part are just fairly normal people, albeit just a bit quirky. Mickah, the bouncer-turned-drummer is probably the most extreme because he’s just so enthusiastically violent, but for the most part characterization is quite thin as far as the script is concerned, and mostly just up to whatever personality the actors bring to things.

The Commitments is also a music film, which is not quite the same as being a musical. It doesn’t use musical numbers as replacement for dramatic scenes or as an opportunity to explore the emotions of a moment. Instead it tells a story in which characters see playing music as an opportunity to express and establish themselves. Jimmy Rabbitte in particular is a fairly intense guy for whom the Commitments represents the mark is hoping to make on the world, even though he is not actually in the band himself. The story of the rise and fall of this act is ultimately the story of Jimmy letting go of this dream, or deciding that it’s not worth all the aggravation.

All aong, it’s really just Jimmy who hold the whole thing together for as long as it lasts. Originally, he’s the one driving everyone to find their voice and find their sound, as well as up their skills. And once they do, and the band becomes a stage act that’s really working well, he’s the one fighting to keep them all the same page. Because as soon as arrive anywhere, they are already collapsing under the weight of their disparate priorities and lack of shared vision. In this way the film is showing us a band who are rising and falling simultaneously, which is an interesting way to go about it.

Some of that fall does feel a bit artificial. There is a lot of fighting going on behind the scenes, much of which is hard to understand or keep track of. Certain characters seem to come to blow simply because that is where the story needs to go. But it’s not fatal for the film, as the emotional textures all make sense, even if some of the rationale for them is hard to follow.

And the music of the film is a lot of fun. Once the band gets going, they sound really good, which is part of where the bittersweet tone of the film comes from. One feels that if only these people could have gotten their act together, then maybe they could have really made something of themselves.

There is a lot swearing in The Commitments, which I wasn’t expecting…even more than in Glengarry Glen Ross which is really “impressive”, in a manner of speaking. Somehow though, because they are all speaking with Irish accents, it’s not quite as offensive.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? Not my favorite, but there are definitely some laughs and a look into the working class Irish world is interesting and worthwhile. And like I said, the music is really good and fun to listen to. The story doesn’t really “add up” to anything, but it knows that and even points that out at the end.

See here for the Master List.

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