The Commitments (1991)

Directed by Alan Parker

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The Commitments is a musical, but only because we follow a band that plays music.  It’s the same way Once (another movie featuring Glen Hansard) is a musical, and it feels more like The Mighty Ducks, another story about a group of ragtag individuals teaming up to accomplish some kind of goal.

Despite the constant bickering of the members of the soul-laden band, this movie is very positive throughout.  It’s a story that celebrates the ugly duckling nature of the group as well as the ambition of Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins), the kid who puts the group together.  This movie reminded me a lot of Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some! (2016), another story that is more about the bonding within a group of individuals rather than the thing that bonds them together.

Where a movie like The Mighty Ducks is all about the game they play, The Commitments is about the people who play the music and not the music itself.  In another movie about the rise and fall of a band, something like That Thing You Do! (1996) or any number of movie biopics, the rise features hit success that changes the lives of everyone in the band.  You might expect to watch the group which formed in someone’s garage to suddenly find themselves on national television or arguing over record contracts.  In The Commitments, though, the band never even leaves Dublin.

The group’s downfall is the result of the constant bickering within the large band (there are around 9 members), even before they see a single dollar (or euro) from their increasing popularity.  The story is about dreaming in a culture and a time in which such ambitions aren’t normally encouraged.  Everyone in the band is from a working class family, and as Jimmy tells the band, they should play soul because, despite being a historically black-dominated genre, Irish are the Black of Europe, Dublin is the Black of Ireland, and North Dublin is the Black of Dublin.  In other words, they are outsiders, so they decide to play a genre of music that differentiates them from the rest of the musical acts in Dublin.

Jimmy, despite starting out as our protagonist, never picks up an instrument.  He orchestrates the construction of the band, holding open auditions, scouring the town for talent, finding recording space and equipment and ultimately booking their shows.  His character is all about ambition, even to his own detriment.  All Jimmy wants is to put together a hit band.  He doesn’t even seem to care about the music they play.  He’s a salesman more than a music afficionado.

The rest of the band is composed of people with unique talents but who either don’t comprehend their talent or don’t have the drive to do anything with it.  Jimmy’s ambition offers them a new glimpse of the way life can be, as Joey ‘The Lips’ Fagan (Johnny Murphy), the band’s saxophonist, later tells him.

When the band falls apart, it suddenly highlights how dream-like this whole journey was.  This film feels like a fairy tale, but one that takes place in a recognizable, not very glamorous environment that, I imagine, offered hope to a number of people who find themselves in the same place as the people who joined The Commitments.

This is a comedy, meaning it never approaches the darkness that a traditional biopic touches on.  You might expect the group to clash when they get some level of fame, as the new life tears apart the old one, but instead this group is clashing from the beginning.  The members of the band don’t fight because that’s what the plot calls for in an attempt to escalate the conflict throughout act 2, instead they fight because that’s who the characters are.  They’re each like pit bulls in their own way, always on edge and bearing their teeth, even while in the middle of a tender love song.

In other words, they are nothing like the people they pretend to be onstage, and often times they don’t even try to hide this.  If fame has a habit of breaking down who you were and reforming you into something new, it won’t do so to these characters, and that’s part of the reason they don’t make it.  They are open to new opportunities, but they are not malleable in the way a successful band sometimes needs to be, as they are handled and processed by managers and record labels to become more ‘sellable.’

Early in The Commitments there is a long montage of people who show up to perform for Jimmy, hoping to join an as of yet unformed band they know nothing about.  At first it’s more than a little silly.  These are people with all kinds of influences, styles and levels of talent, and Jimmy, somewhat surprisingly, dismisses most of them.  He’s a perfectionist, but he’s unable to acknowledge the level of passion amongst this group of hopefuls who probably don’t have any other kind of outlet for this type of creativity.  It’s an inspiring sequence, even if perhaps it doesn’t intend to be, because it shows just how much passion lies under the surface.

Again, these are all characters who are somewhat restrained by their middle class backgrounds.  In one scene, one of the back up singers explains that she can’t make a rehearsal because she has to watch her younger sister and go to work to support the family.  You might expect her to tell Jimmy that the band is an imposition on her life and what she needs to do, but she pleads for him to let her stay in the band.  It’s the only think she has to look forward to.  Another of the backup singers skips out on an annual family vacation to make one of their performances.

This band means something to all of them, even if they can’t realize it.  These characters are so programmed to live a certain way, to look for a job or to collect unemployment, to drink at the pub or to ogle a woman they know indirectly.  The version of Dublin presented in this film is like a schoolyard, and the characters don’t realize that they’re not choosing to live a certain way, they’re merely following the path laid out for them.  When they go out for a night of fun it may feel like freedom, but it’s only recess, and when the time runs out they will be back to the normal grind.

But The Commitments represent a way out, and even though the band fizzles out before reaching its apex, each character has identified a way out, the widening gap under the chainlink fence that leads them from the schoolyard like Antoine Doinel at the end of The 400 Blows.  The band is freedom.

The movie ends with a montage of where all the characters are now.  They range from busking on Grafton street (Outspan Foster, played by Glen Hansard who many theorize plays the same character as the unnamed character in 2007’s Once), leading a punk band, singing in a country-ish band, singing while working as a doctor, etc.  In each of these small vignettes, the characters carry with them something they picked up from The Commitments.

This is an optimistic if not entirely idealistic movie.  It feels like The Mighty Ducks over the course of the story, but it leaves you with a more realistic feeling of attainable hope, something you can find within yourself even if you don’t have the same musical or athletic talents of characters from these two movies.  The lesson, I suppose, is just not to ignore whatever it is that might be inside you.

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