Revisiting “The Commitments”

For those who aren’t especially enamored of acknowledging St. Patrick’s Day by wearing green, fondling shamrocks, or indulging in substantial quantities of Guinness, one way to celebrate is to enjoy the 1991 classic The Commitments. The story of a ragtag Dublin soul band mirrors the history of virtually thousands of real-life bands throughout the British Isles since the Rock ’n’ Roll era began. In industrial cities especially — from Dublin to Liverpool to Glasgow — unemployment among young people was remarkably high throughout the ’80s, allowing precious few dreams for them to pursue with any realistic hope of breaking out from the bleakness. But some of those dreams came via music, which has been a compelling outlet for restless young people on both sides of the Atlantic for over half a century. In the eyes of many who were either unemployed, disillusioned, or both, music was an equal opportunity gateway to success (especially for those with at least a modicum of talent), albeit with no guarantees.

Directed by Alan Parker (Fame, Mississippi Burning), who vividly captures the sights, sounds, and spirit of working-class Dublin at the dawn of the 1990s, The Commitments is an energetic, laugh-outloud, musical story that helps us understand the circumstances under which bands regularly sprang up in search of a way out. The screenplay by Roddy Doyle (based on is 1987 novel, part of his Barrytown Trilogy) was co-written with the legendary British comedy writing team of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, whom the producers brought in to add their own comic ideas. Doyle told an Irish newspaper in 2021, “There was a disappointment with The Commitments. It was the way the ‘co-written’ aspect of it was handled. When I looked at the final script it had Dick and Ian’s names on it but not mine. But when I read it, I realised I wrote a considerable part of this. And I had to fight for my right — not for too long — but it could have been embittering.”

The story first introduces us to Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins), a young ambitious music aficionado determined to organize and manage a soul band, and unwilling to let anything get in his way (whenever he finds himself alone, such as in the bath, he carries on imaginary interviews with reporters eager to hear about his path to success). Jimmy places an ad in the local paper and nearly regrets it — as does his father — as he is besieged with musical hopefuls of every size, shape, and style, who come knocking at his door to audition.

Among the houseful of hopefuls auditioning, you might recognize Colm Meany from the “Star Trek” TV spinoffs as Jimmy’s dad, and young Andrea Corr, of the musical group the Corrs, as his younger sister.

He discovers his lead singer, Deco Cuffe (Andrew Strong) singing in a drunken stupor at a wedding reception where two of his friends are playing as the wedding band. Deco is a coarse, obnoxious slob, but Jimmy quickly spots his natural singing talent and even an inexplicable, warped sort of charisma (Strong’s singing voice, facial expressions and body language instantly bring Joe Cocker to mind, even though Strong was only sixteen when the film was shot).

Andrew Strong as Deco.

A bit later in the audition process, a trumpet player, Joey “The Lips” Fagan (Johnny Murphy), arrives. About twice as old as the other fledgling band members, Joey talks like a homespun evangelist, and who may or may not have played alongside most of the soul greats when he was in his prime, as he often claims.

As Jimmy assembles the band, he makes clear one unwavering rule: they are to play American black soul music, and only soul music. He has no use for anything else. “Soul music is the music of the working class,” he explains, adding that it is the only real music Dubliners will connect with. He even has the group study films of James Brown performing onstage, including his oft-repeated mock collapse from prostration, and being escorted off by his assistants, draped in his cape (“He’s hurt, look — they’re helping him off!” one of the group points out with concern). Jimmy prods them to aspire to such lofty heights of showmanship, but the task has them shifting uncomfortably:

Once Joey christens the band The Commitments (which soon includes their three fetching female singers, The Commitmentettes), Jimmy guides them through the uncertain early stages of rehearsals in a hall above the neighborhood poolroom. The rehearsal scenes take us along with the band through days of exhausting practice and moments of doubt, as well as small breakthroughs that encourage them to believe they can make a real go of it. Jimmy also finds local venues for them to play, while working to keep peace among all ten members.

The Commitmentettes (l. to r.): Bernie (Bronagh Gallagher), Imelda (Angline Ball), and Natalie (Maria Doyle).

What makes this such an enjoyable film, aside from the music — classics by the likes of Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Wilson Pickett, as sung and performed by the cast themselves — is seeing this ragtag group of hardened, foulmouthed, but well-meaning and likeable young people working together to realize their common dream, recognizing the need to set aside personality clashes, egos, and jealousies for the good of the band. This is particularly evident in their attitude towards Deco, whom they detest as a person, but who has earned their respect for his abilities as a singer, one who can whip just about any crowed into a joyous frenzy.

Foster (Glen Hansard), Dean (Félim Gormley), and Joey (Johnny Murphy rehearse.

However, the band’s drummer, Bill Mooney (Dick Massey) becomes so fed up with Deco that he quits the band, taking his drums and van (which has served as their transportation) with him. The incident rattles Jimmy, but the band carries on, replacing Bill with their “savage” roadie, Mikah White, who takes out his aggressions on the drums when he’s not enjoying a good barroom brawl.

As the group gains local recognition and support, it becomes impossible for us not to pull for them and cheer them on, hoping they’ll be able to supress their intensifying personal conflicts as they continue their climb. Above all, the music is the thing here, and the musical performances themselves are full of energy and conviction.

In addition to Strong, the fabulous and beautiful Maria Doyle as Natalie shines as she takes a turn or two on lead vocals, as does Angeline Ball as Imelda Quirk. Considering how most of the cast at the time were either musicians with no acting experience, or actors with no musical experience, they are all superb and gel wonderfully together, and you might find yourself wishing you could just hang out with them for an afternoon or more.

To further blur the line between fiction and reality, several of the cast members embarked on a concert tour in 1991 to promote the film (Andrew Strong’s father, soul singer Rob Strong, took over for his son later in the tour), The Ritz in Manhattan (formerly Studio 54) served as the venue on St. Patrick’s Day, ’92.

So, if you’ve somehow missed out on this musical comedy treat of a film— which concludes with a thrilling, adrenaline-pumping performance — it’s about time to discover it for yourself. Or, if it’s been a number of years since you’ve seen it, re-discover these underdog characters and enjoy their victories and setbacks all over again. Either way, it would do you good to make the commitment to see it.

Until next time…

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Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.

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Garry Berman

Garry Berman

Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.

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