30 Years Ago: ‘The Commitments’ Brings Soul to Dublin
Wannabe-impresario Jimmy Rabbitte has a question: “Have you got soul?”
The question opens an ad Jimmy has placed in a Dublin paper aimed at recruiting members for a new R&B band. It also underpins everything in The Commitments, which opened in August of 1991.
Jimmy asks each musician he comes across if they have soul. Director Alan Parker asks it of every character. The movie asks it of the audience. With every frame and transcendent music performances, the film ponders who loves life, who lives for music, who has a burning fire in their soul aimed at pulling them above the grind of economic despair on the Northside of Dublin in the ’80s and early ’90s.
The movie opens with pop-music fanatic and aspiring capitalist Jimmy looking to form a band. While he seems to genuinely adore Motown, Stax and James Brown, managing a group could amplify his fame and finances more than selling bootleg cassettes and T-shirts ever could. After putting his ad in the paper, Jimmy auditions a beautiful and bizarre range of hopefuls from across the city. Here’s where Parker shows what’s at the heart of the film.
The director spent his early career preparing for The Commitments. While the end of the’80s had him directing dark fare such as Angel Heart and Mississippi Burning, he opened the decade helming Pink Floyd: The Wall and Fame, both of which mixed musical performances, an ensemble cast and themes of desperation and aspiration found in The Commitments. Everybody in this film is looking to live forever or to learn how to fly or to get people to remember their name.
When Jimmy opens his family door (he’s still living with parents, brother and three sisters, stuffed into a tiny house) on those looking to audition, he immediately wants to know about influences. He gets everything from Barry Manilow, Joan Baez and Bachman-Turner Overdrive to Spandau Ballet, Sinead O’Connor and Led Zeppelin. Those who don’t get the door slammed in their face try to impress Jimmy with renditions of ’60s folk, screamo metal, Irish jigs and acoustic covers of the Smiths’ “Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now.”
Jimmy hates it all, but what the parade of hopefuls makes clear is that everybody loves music and everybody is looking to tap into that love in a meaningful way. Even Jimmy’s dad, played with wonderful simplicity and confidence by Colm Meaney, wouldn’t mind joining the band as long as he can sing songs by his beloved Elvis Presley.
Later in the film, a musician sneaks into a confession booth to admit that his lust for R&B has him taking the Lord’s name in vain, lusting after women and constantly “humming 'When a Man Loves a Woman' by Marvin Gaye.” The unseen priest immediately corrects him: It's Percy Sledge not Gaye who sang “When a Man Loves a Woman.” From bootleggers to medical students to Irish Catholic priests, the whole city gets by through mainlining pop music.
Watch 'The Commitments' Trailer
With the auditions proving hopeless, Jimmy begins putting together the band through friends and odd acquaintances. He finds lead singer and all-around arse Deco Cuffe after watching him drunkenly hijack a microphone at a wedding reception. He gets old pals guitarist Outspan Foster and bassist Derek Scully to join in and ditch the keyboard-driven crap the pair plays in the unfortunately named And And And. Eventually, the band fills out with pianist Steven Clifford, saxophonist Dean Fay, drummer Billy Mooney, female backup singers Bernie McGloughlin, Natalie Murphy and Imelda Quirke, and finally, the too-good-to-be-true Joey "The Lips" Fagan - a veteran who claims to have worked with many of the icons of American soul, including Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and Stevie Wonder.
Joey’s as old as Jimmy's dad but he’s 16 years younger than B.B. King, whom he says he’s jammed with. The old horn player is tired of the road and his mom isn’t well, so he’s been sent by the Lord, in a very Blues Brothers way, to bring soul to the Irish. Jimmy’s youthful ambition and Joey’s optimism (and legitimate chops) rev up the band, which the Lips dubs the Commitments.
So why soul? Why not funk or reggae or Texas swing? Jimmy answers that when the new band questions his grand vision
“Soul is the rhythm of sex,” he says, “and it’s the rhythm of the factory, too. The working man’s rhythm … . Soul is the music people understand. Sure it's basic and it's simple. But it's something else … it's honest, that's it. It's 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.”
Based on Parker’s direction and a screenplay by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais and Roddy Doyle (based on his 1987 novel of the same name), the whole of Northside of Dublin needed to be lifted above the shite. Parker constantly shows Jimmy walking through what the character calls “urban decay”: kids playing with trash, trash on fire, burnt-out buildings. And yet the whole movie is shot with optimism. As sax player Dean tells Jimmy when the two bump into each other at the unemployment office: “It feels much better being an unemployed musician than an unemployed pipefitter.”
Watch Auditions Scene From 'The Commitments'
The band members often argue and occasionally come to blows, but each character revels in the glow of great music done with talent and passion. As the Commitments begin to get more gigs and a minor burst of fame, the fights amplify but so does the magic onstage. One of the small miracles of the film is how it finds room for a story arc and a dozen tightly drawn characters when a third of its running time is devoted to performances. This magic trick works because Parker develops the story and characters during rehearsals and smoldering takes on soul classics at crowded venues - from a church community center to a roller disco to a packed pub.
The climax hinges on whether Joey can get his old pal (or so he says) Wilson Pickett, who is playing in Dublin the same night as the Commitments, to come and jam with the Irish upstarts. Backstage the band frets and fights, but when it gets onstage to fire up "Try a Little Tenderness,” nothing matters but the song. The scene, and so much of the movie, works because the actors can really sing and play — Parker and his team spent months auditioning hundreds of hopefuls for the roles. The band’s rendition of the song Otis Redding made immortal moves from understated groove to sizzling swagger to an all-out storm of shouts and stomps, with Andrew Strong’s Deco making the vocal his own by blending booming blues with just the right amount of punk growl.
Watch the Commitments Perform 'Try a Little Tenderness
The performance whips the crowd into a frenzy and feeds the band pure joy. After the group comes offstage, the bickering starts all over again because, let's face it, soul music can’t cure everything.
But what the movie gets right is that art elevates. Reading The Hobbit can take you from blank suburbia to bright Middle Earth. Watching Pretty in Pink can help a high-school kid overcome the pains of that age. Listening to Aretha Franklin, Martha Reeves, James Brown or Elvis can bring a spark to a life marked by little money and fewer prospects.
But elevation doesn’t equal success. With the band at one another’s throats and half the members looking to go solo, Jimmy’s dream looks to be a disaster. Or at least that’s one perspective. Joey tells Jimmy he’s got it all wrong.
“You're missing' the point,” Joey says. “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.”