I first saw The Commitments when it came to home video in the US in 1992. I wasn’t much for movies that fell far from the mainstream at that point, but as an Irish-American, I’ve tried my best to keep the culture of the homeland as close to me as possible. On a suggestion from a group of friends I would never expect to pass a movie like this along, I watched it. I was immediately enamored to say the least. At that time, it was hard to see something about Ireland that didn’t involve The Troubles or The IRA (the protestant paramilitary groups always seemed to escape the conversation somehow, but that’s another story). So, I was excited that this film didn’t involve any of that. Based on the Roddy Doyle novel of the same name, the film adaptation of The Commitments fell to able musical director Alan Parker who is responsible for two stone cold classics – Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Bugsy Malone, one of the most underrated films of all-time.
Jimmy Rabbitte, the brains behind the Commitments
The film opens with Jimmy Rabbite, Jr. (Robert Arkins) Going from booth to booth at an outdoor flea market of sorts trying to sell his wares to the various proprietors with no luck. Most of what he appears to be selling is musical in nature – band t-shirts, cassette tapes, etc. When he’s on the train ride home, a group of kids come up to him like he’s a celebrity, asking him about what he’s got and buying it. Jimmy is clearly a man in the know and we get confirmation about that in the next scene as Jimmy arrives at a wedding to meet his friends Outspan Foster (Glen Hansard) and Derek Scully (Kenneth McCluskey) who are performing as the wedding band along with their singer Ray (Philip Bredin). When they take a break, Outspan and Derek ask Jimmy if he’ll manage the band to which he accepts, but only if Ray leaves. “What youse were playing up there was shite,” Jimmy says, but he has a plan for the band. Incidentally, a drunken fool, Deco Cuffe (Andrew Strong), is singing along with The Proclaimers “Letter from America” showcasing his AMAZING voice. So when they leave the wedding, Jimmy details the music the band will be playing so eloquently:
“You’re working class, right? So, your music should be about where you’re from…it should speak the language of the streets. It should be about struggle and sex and I don’t mean mushy shite love songs about I’ll hold your hand and I’ll love you ’til the end of time. I mean ridin’, fuckin’, tongues, gooters, boxers – the works.”
And what kind of music says all of that? Soul. They are going to play Dublin Soul. So Jimmy goes about collecting the pieces of the band, starting with advertising in the paper which brings out the rabble of North Dublin. After gaining Dean Fay (Félim Gormley), a saxophone player, and drummer Billy Mooney (Dick Massey), Jimmy adds two key components – the backup singers, Bernie (Bronagh Gallagher), beautiful blonde Imelda (Angeline Ball) and the smooth-voiced Natalie (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and the aforementioned Deco Cuffe, the singer from the wedding. But the man who brings it all together is Joey “The Lips” Fagan, a trumpet player who claims that the Lord sent him to Jimmy. He also claims that he has played with MANY soul greats like Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, Otis Redding, and Sam Cooke among others. The final piece of the puzzle is medical student Steven Clifford (Michael Aherne), a piano player, who doesn’t exactly have the same blue collar background as the rest.
The angelic-voiced Lady Commitments: Bernie, Imelda and Natalie
Jimmy’s explanation to the group about why soul is what they should be playing is equally as eloquent as his pitch to Dean and Outspan:
“Soul is the music people understand. Sure it’s basic and it’s simple. But it’s something else ’cause, ’cause, ’cause it’s honest, that’s it. Its honest. There’s no fuckin’ bullshit. It sticks its neck out and says it straight from the heart. Sure there’s a lot of different music you can get off on but soul is more than that. It takes you somewhere else. It grabs you by the balls and lifts you above the shite.”
Who wouldn’t want to be in this band when the pitch is that?
Even as they start, egos start to rear their ugly head. During their first live performance, Deco calls out, “Hello Dublin…how do youse like me group?” infuriating the rest of the band. This only starts the spiral as they gain more exposure and find more success.
Show me a man out there that’s got a good woman, show me!
The group has its ups – a great review in the Irish Times – and its downs – Billy quits the band and security guard Mickah “Don’t Fuck With Me” Wallace (Dave Finnegan) takes over – and their popularity continues to grow. And then their biggest opportunity to date comes to town: Wicked Wilson Pickett is to play a show in Dublin. Joey claims to have jammed with Wilson when he was younger and meets with him when he arrives in Dublin. Joey reports back that Mr. Pickett will be joining them onstage at their gig that night. When Pickett doesn’t make it to the gig, the true colors of the band’s members show – Deco says he’s gotten an offer from a band with a record contract and is considering leaving the band, Dean has shifted his playing style from soul to jazz and begun to dress the part, Outspan and Derek fight over who plays better, the girls ALL fight over Joey as at least Natalie and Bernie have had encounters with him, and Mickah’s tolerance for Deco’s prima donna bullshit boils over. Just as Jimmy is about to close a record deal, the whole thing blows up.
The Lord sent me. And the Lord blows my trumpet.
The biggest question of this film is, “Is Joey who he says he is?”
The members of the band always suspect, with exception of Jimmy, that Joey is not who he says he is, that he never played with The Beatles or BB King. And when Wilson Pickett doesn’t show up to their show at Gallagher’s on that fateful evening, we are led to believe that as well. However, when Jimmy meets Pickett‘s limo on its way to Gallagher’s on his walk home, we are once again forced to rethink Joey. That he is the only real, polished musician of the bunch of them (with possible exception of Billy) counts for something as well. And in the epilogue “interview” Jimmy gives to himself, he points out, alas, that Joey has reported back to his mum that he is on tour with Joe Tex…only Joe Tex had died six years prior. So, I guess we never really know about Joey. He does make a fabulous point to Jimmy when the band breaks up:
“You’re missin’ the point. The success of the band was irrelevant – you raised their expectations of life, you lifted their horizons. Sure we could have been famous and made albums and stuff, but that would have been predictable. This way it’s poetry.”
If I’m gonna front the band, I like the sound of “Deco.”
The soundtrack to this film is simply incredible. The band on film are the ones that actually produce the songs on the soundtrack. Andrew Strong‘s voice is utterly amazing and to think that he was only 16 when the film was shot is nearly unfathomable. It is admittedly sad that I had never heard James Carr‘s “The Dark End of the Street” before seeing this film. I will admit that I’m glad that The Commitments‘ version is the first I heard. Andrew Strong absolutely nails it. No one outside of John Belushi does a better Joe Cocker face whilst singing. You can tell he really puts everything into it. Have a listen:
What do you think, Jimmy, they’ll be eatin’ chips out of our knickers?
When Maria Doyle Kennedy sings to the baby in Irish is one of my favorite parts of the whole movie. Her voice, in my opinion, is the best of three women. Her leads on Aretha Franklin‘s “I Never Loved a Man” and “Chain of Fools” aren’t as good as the originals (and let’s be frank no one will ever come close), but they are the best covers I’ve ever heard. Angeline Ball’s version of “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” is equally as good. Even Robert Arkins sings on the soundtrack doing Clarence Carter‘s “Slip Away.” I would be remiss if I neglected mentioning the signature song for The Commitments – Wilson Pickett‘s “Mustang Sally.” Simply amazing. The synergy of all elements of the band come ALIVE in that song – the horns, the guitar, the voices. Give me the tingles. The two CDs that were released from this film were a constant on my playlist for my last years of high school and have since passed them along to my two sons.
Now, in all the time you were at Graceland, did you ever see Elvis messing around with any drugs?
Jimmy Rabbitte, Sr. (played fabulously by Colm Meaney) provides some of the funniest parts of the film, his unabashed love for Elvis Presley giving us some incredible comedy fodder. When Joey is telling him about the time Vernon Presley, Elvis‘ father, puked into his trumpet and how rapt he is while Joey is telling the story is just priceless. When he sees the band for the first time in their backyard he says, “I bet U2 are shittin’ themselves” – perfect delivery and facial expression, totally sarcastic in the best of ways. Colm Meaney simply knocks it out of the park, something he’s been doing for years.
One thing that always bothered me was that Parker never shows Outspan actually playing the guitar. For years I thought Glen Hansard was not a musician. Ha! Little did I know he was the frontman for The Frames, is part of The Swell Season with Markéta Irglová and is now an Oscar-winner for Best Original Song for “Falling Slowly” from John Curran‘s Once.
The Commitments in 2011 for the 20th Anniversary of the film. All are members present except Johnny Murphy (Joey the Lips) and Maria Doyle Kennedy (Natalie).
To sum it all up, this movie is unbelievably good. It takes a book that is nearly all dialogue and transfers it to the screen in a fresh manner, something few film adaptations do. Alan Parker was the right man for this job, so kudos to the producers and Roddy Doyle for allowing him to take the reins. I honestly don’t know anything that could make this movie any better than it is. I would easily list this as one of the best films of the ’90s. Take that for what it’s worth.
Here’s the trailer: