I am a sucker for a movie about musicians. Everything from That Thing You Do! to the TV miniseries The Temptations I have devoured and loved. The 1991 film The Commitments is one that passed my radar and for good reason: it was 1991 and I was too busy being five years old and playing with wrestling figures (as opposed to now being 23 and playing with wrest…I mean lifting weights), plus it’s never on TV.
My roommate, who is also a big fan of movies about music, decided to fire up the ol’ Netflix Watch Instantly on his Xbox 360 and put this one on, saying it would be worth a watch. Planning to go to bed, I said I’d give it 20 minutes and then I was out. Two hours later, the movie is over, and I am wowed. The Commitments may possibly be the best (and most realistic) movie about a band ever made.
Set in the working class area of Dublin, Ireland, The Commitments follows Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins), a music lover with dreams of fame and fortune who decides to bring “soul music” to Dublin. He enlists the help of his best friends, Outspan Foster (Glen Hansard… yes, that Glen Hansard) and Derek “Meatman” Scully (Kenneth McCluskey), to play guitar and bass respectively and puts an ad in the paper to complete the band.
The band slowly fills up with an oddball set of characters from all around the city, including the egotistical pervert Deco Cuffe (Andrew Strong) as the lead singer and trumpeter Joey “The Lips” Fagan (Johnny Murphy), who spent his youth playing with all the greats and acts as the spiritual guru for the young band (when he’s not sleeping with the three female backup singers, that is). The movie follows the trials and tribulations of the band, from gaining a following in Dublin to personal conflicts between the many band members (there are about ten total), and just life in the working class hell of Dublin’s North Side.
Alan Parker, the director of The Commitments, has made a beautiful looking film. It’s gritty and very realistic and doesn’t shy away from showing the crappier parts of Dublin. The settings in this film are not exactly what anyone would put in a brochure to attract tourists. It’s grimy and dirty and you get a real sense of how depressing life can be there. Low budget as it is, you don’t need a lot of money to accomplish what Parker and company did, and they do it with flying colors.
What the movie is truly about is how music can make life worth living. All the members of the band do not have a lot going for them, and the world they live in does not hold much hope for a better future. When they start playing out as The Commitments, they play to adoring crowds and they are shown that they could truly rise above their status in life and there is more to them than working in a factory the rest of their lives.
The people in charge of turning The Commitments into a movie made a smart move by casting the musician roles based on musical talent and not necessarily based on acting ability. With the gritty, realistic feel the movie has throughout, to have a band that could not actually play their instruments or sing would have given it an inauthentic feel and ruined what the film was going for. Andrew Strong especially has a really strong and impressive voice, looking like an Irish version of Meat Loaf and singing with the soul of Joe Cocker inside of him. As annoying as his character of Deco is, when he sings, you are caught in the trance of the music. My only complaint about Strong is purely physical — his facial mannerisms when he sings, although you can tell he’s really getting into it, are just straight-up annoying to look at and I had the urge to punch him in the face.
The best thing about these musicians though is that they can act. Everyone does a really spectacular job with their role, giving every person (big part or small) their own little quirks and personality. Arkins anchors the film amazingly as Jimmy Rabbitte. He’s the man behind all the music and his constant drive for success keeps the band together… at least for awhile. He is willing to sacrifice whatever he needs to in order to ensure the band’s success, including pawning items and taking out loans in order to pay for the equipment. The desperation and the ambition Rabbitte has is really compelling and Arkins proves to be excellent in this role.
The Commitments is about the journey of a band, and all the personalities and conflicts that occur when a bunch of people of different attitudes and feelings get together to make art. It’s a cry of rebellion and strength, becoming the lifeboat of the ten working class bums that form the band, a world of hope from the lives they live. With the band they can experience things that they could have never felt otherwise. The Commitments is two hours long, but the story is engrossing and filled with humor and heartbreak, keeping you hooked in for every twist and turn. Sorry, Tom Hanks… Alan Parker and The Commitments have overtaken you and your Wonders for the greatest film about a band of all time.