It’s a movie about a soul band. They’re from Ireland.
When it comes to describing the movie The Commitments, that’s a good place to start. The 1991 film is about a young Irishman’s dream of forming the best band soul band to ever come out of Ireland. An Irish soul band might not sound right, but in young Jimmy Rabbitte’s eyes, it makes perfect sense. If soul music is a product of the disenfranchised, then who better than the Irish to take a crack at it.
Or in his words:
With the justification out of the way, Rabbitte then proceeds to assemble his group. He needs a horn section of course as well as some back-up singers. And then he needs a singer, but not just any singer. Rabbitte needs a soul singer, someone who can channel the pain and suffering of soul music and reach to the heavens with a sound that comes from deep within their belly. Such a singer would be hard to find anywhere but in Dublin in the late 1980s, it’s even harder as you’re more likely to find pop singers and wannabe punk rockers. Undeterred, Rabbitte finds his singer (and the trouble that comes with him,) assembles his band, convinces a local church to host them as part of an anti-heroin campaign and The Commitments are off.
And then they’re not.
But that’s not the point and actually, the fact that the band doesn’t survive makes the story that much more believable and enjoyable. The story of someone trying their best and failing is more often than not the better story than the story of someone succeeding. Success is boring, failure is relateable.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though.
Released nearly thirty years ago, The Commitments is based on a book of the same name. It wasn’t very well-received on this side of the Atlantic but was generally praised back over in England where it went on to win a handful of BAFTAs (the British Oscars.) The film produced two soundtracks, filled with the band’s takes on several soul classics by everyone from Wilson Pickett to Otis Redding. The combination of the soundtrack and the always welcomed story of underdogs trying to make something of themselves have led to the film becoming more appreciated over time, achieving cult-status and making the list of the best British films of all-time.
The Commitments is one of those movies I happened to come across back in the day at Videoport (RIP,) a local video story in sunny Portland, Maine. At the time, I was familiar with soul music but overall, was deep within the throes of musical exploration. It was peak-sponge time for me, I was consuming as much music as I could. That meant devouring classic albums and greatest hits collections in addition to watching movies about music, whether it was Pink Floyd’s The Wall or The Blues Brothers.
I couldn’t tell you when was the first time I saw The Commitments but I can tell you I’ve watched it countless times since then and the soundtrack (the first one, I didn’t know there was a second one until today) was in heavy rotation for me during high school, right up there with Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Green Day, eventually Phish and whatever else I was rifling through during that time. The versions of the classics on the album are honest and respectful takes on the originals, which is about all you can ask for when it comes to cover songs. They come from a place of appreciation and it’s something that comes across both when you listen to the songs or watch them in the film. The band believes in what they’re singing, something that is necessary when performing most genres of music, but especially soul music.
The movie is a simple story, something that I feel is part of the appeal of The Commitments. And it’s a film with a wonderful crew of characters, musical archetypes that are lovingly familiar. There are the dudes who just want to play music and be happy and there’s the sax player on a journey of discovery as he tries to decide what direction to follow musically. The drummer(s) are lunatics, the piano player is a saint and the trumpet player is the wise old veteran (maybe.) With three backup singers, there’s the local hot gal, the tomboy, and the girl next door. As a whole, none of these are new characters, but they don’t need to be. Knowing them already allows the story to bypass some backstory in favor of musical numbers and/or tension-building within the band, both of which are more important to the film’s overall story.
While the movie is driven by the music, it’s the relationships that form and subsequently explode magnificently within the band that drives the film. There are friends, there are lovers, there are rivals and there is plenty of contempt to go around. You know, like most bands. Any band worth a damn is going to have a level of combustibility to it and The Commitments are no exception. Young Rabbitte essentially threw a few sticks of dynamite into a road case and hoped for the best. Unfortunately, what few bumps in the road the band drove across right out of the gate was all that was needed to start setting them off. The band was doomed from the start, but Rabbitte either didn’t see it or didn’t want to. If anything, he welcomed the struggle, seeing it as part of the band’s journey. Rabbitte’s optimism, determination, and drive is the film’s north star and it’s nice to see that even when everything falls apart around him, he doesn’t completely lose any of it. It’s easy to imagine Rabbitte spending a few days stewing on the failure of his soul experiment before turning his attention to something new. Country music maybe?
The movie is a moment in time film in that it’s a story that isn’t the characters’ entire lives, just a brief part of it. They came in with their own lived experiences and left set to embark on whatever was ahead of them, whether it was a domesticated life, more attempts at musical stardom, or whatever Joey Fagan and his weird mom were going to do next. It’s a testament to the story that when the film ends, you want to know what happens next for the band members even though they’re now all essentially solo acts. The band is part of their story, it’s not the whole story.
And who among us hasn’t experienced something like the characters in The Commitments did, a brief respite from our normal lives?
It almost doesn’t matter that the band didn’t pan out. For a few weeks there, the members of the band had found a purpose and some hope amidst a life of theirs that wasn’t especially bursting with either. There’s a lurking despondency on the fringes of The Commitments that is always there but it’s not something that’s harped on. You can feel it in the decision-making of each of the characters though. The band isn’t so much of a physical way out of their daily lives as it is an emotional one and pouring themselves into something as beautiful as soul music is fitting because of the transportive nature of soul music, how it’s music rooted in the idea of coming to face with your demons, your loves, your losses, and your own self.
For them, The Commitments was an escape and for me, The Commitments is an escape.
We all have movies that stick with us throughout our lives, movies that speak to us and resonate with us in one way or the other. The Commitments is that kind of movie for me and I can’t see that changing anytime soon.