Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The Commitments

This week I'm going to take a look at the film "The Commitments", directed by Alan Parker, and released in 1991. It is one of my favorite films and has still endured to this day despite how much has gone in in the years since I've first seen it, and I know many others still connect to it even so many years later. Though I'm not sure a lot of people really know why. It still works today just as well as when it first released.

Back in the early '90s, this film sort of came out of nowhere. Based on a fairly good book of the same title by Roddy Doyle, no one was really prepared for this film to become as popular as it did or touch people the way it did. It's a fairly straightforward plot that has been done before, but what is it about this particular film that has helped it endure over the years when so many others have been forgotten?

There are a few reasons, I think.

I think a good bit that helped it is how timeless much of it is. I first saw the film around 2000 or so and had absolutely no idea the film was over nine years old at the time. The references to music and pop culture are all over the place, and both the dress, style, and atmosphere could be almost any period, it's quite a remarkable feat and the production staff deserve much credit for it. But what really puts it all over the top for me, more than the excellent soul music throughout, is how universal everything about the film is.

Jimmy Rabbitte is a young man with dreams of making it big. He's so convinced he'll make it big that he practices interviewing himself for one he finally makes it. Despite his dreams, however, he's just a common man like the rest of us. He lives in Dublin with many other young men and women that share his frustration and inability to get ahead from the daily grind of life and is constantly making plans and readjusting them based on what he sees and experiences.

His observations of the neighborhood he lives in leads him to come up with the ingenious idea of forming a band. Not just any band, however, but a full-fledged soul band. Soul music in Ireland? That's right, you're dealing with bonafide black Irish soul from Dublin played by white people!

That overblown set-up aside, the film is quite funny with its commentary on normal life and some of foibles we all go through, as well as some of the silly things we do. On the other hand, the band's trek from talentless nobodies to being local stars is rather seriously portrayed and comes to a head at several moments climaxing in a quite powerful moment.

The band is a ten piece, give or take, and every member of the band is given enough time to let their personality shine as we are given a look into their motivations and dreams as well as their relationships to everyone else. They all mesh well together, sort of like an overly large puzzle with a few too many pieces, until they all start to fall apart after forcibly disconnecting from each other.

Every character might have ambition and a dream to live for, but they also all have flaws, all of which amplify as they are given the attention they seek and crave and their egos quickly grow out of control. As the manager, it is up to Jimmy to hold them all together, but even he tends to let his pride get a hold of him at the worst possible moments, culminating in a scene that ends up destroying the trust of several others. The relationships throughout the film build and waver like this, but, as you start to look under the surface, you begin to see many reasons for why some things work out for the group and other things just don't.


There is a theme put forth by Jimmy of sex being what the working class really cares about above all. "Sex in the factory", so to speak. Jimmy makes it a point several times to tell the group that you need to make the audience want and crave sex, you need to ooze sex all the time, and the band members constantly make sexual jokes at other members' expense or come-ons to the opposite sex at the most inappropriate times.

This actually causes a lot of problems they otherwise wouldn't have had.

What this leads to is a lot of in-fighting, jealousy, affairs, and growing resentment cropping up from every member by the time the group implodes. What we learn is that it isn't about sex at all and it never was. "Sex ruins everything!" Jimmy actually yells at one point, as yes, it is the pet obsession that was the root of most of their issues. A group that started out liking each other, more or less, all grew to despise each other for such petty reasons.

In fact, there is a scene where Natalie, one of the female singers, tries to hook up with Jimmy after a band meeting and she asks if he would be interested in her if he wasn't the manager. In a surprising twist, despite his attraction to her, he turns her down. "But I am the manager," he says before he turns to walk home alone. It's the first indication of just how seriously Jimmy takes his job despite how most of the band members thinking of him as little more than a pest at times. Jimmy is one of the few characters that realizes his original mantra of it being all about sex was wrong by the film's end, though that doesn't mean he isn't without faults of his own.

Just as Dean Fey, the sax player, starts to become obsessed with his image and being cool, and Deco Cuffe, the singer, loses himself to accolades and praise, Jimmy Rabbitte uses shifty means to acquire practice space and instruments for his band to play and it all eventually comes back to bite him hard. In the middle of a show he is openly attacked and several members begin to have doubts about him leading to a lot of the unraveling. In fact, they lose all confidence in him when Joey Fagan, partial liar and partial truth-teller, promises a special appearance from a celebrity at one the band's most important shows that turns out to be a partial truth that ends up being the final nail in the coffin for the band.

In fact, Joey himself, the trumpet player, is the one who sums up much of the film itself. At the start he tells Jimmy that he was sent from the Lord in order to play with him, and yet as the film goes on you begin to wonder if he really was sent by the other guy instead. He mentors all the members in both wholesome and less than savory ways, he tells the truth and helps the band out when they need it yet his lies also drag them down at the worst possible moments. Even at the end, you aren't quite sure what to make of Joey. Was he telling the truth? Or was he lying? The ending specifies that we might never know the whole truth about him.

But he does sum up the film very nicely at the end when he tells Jimmy that getting famous wasn't the point of the band at all. It was about more than that.

On the cusp of "success", the band lets their vices get out of hand which which ends up exploding after a particularly amazing show and even spills violence into the street in some cases. Joey is also in just as much fault as the others were, but he sums up the whole point very well as he chases Jimmy down who is the first to walk out.

It wasn't about succeeding, getting a record contract, or getting famous. Jimmy needed to be there for those people when he was to lift their spirits, to give them something to hope for, and to show them there is much more to life than what you see in your day to day life. In the end, even if the band didn't last, it was important and, as we see in the closing moments of the movie, something that touched every former member of the band in a significant way even if they were no longer in the music business or thinking about it. Everything he did mattered, even if he didn't profit from it, and even if the band itself ends up forgotten.

But the film ends at its most telling point, as Jimmy has kept up with all the old members of the band and is already moving on himself. But that doesn't stop him from going right back to his dreams of finding a way to succeed, not fully aware that he already had.


At the end of the story, we are left with the idea that everything we do in life matters, no matter how small or how worthless it might seem, bad or good. We are one piece of a much bigger picture and need to keep that in mind to stop ourselves from becoming obsessed with putting ourselves over others. Do the best you can, the best you can do it. And "The Commitments" is definitely one of the best.

Of course, the film isn't for everyone. There's a lot of swearing, sex talk, and some shady dealings along the way, but those are all treated as the vices they are and never end up helping characters but instead hinder them at the worst moments. As it is, sin hurts.

But, if you're looking for a film with great music, a fun script, great lessons, and an engaging story, you can't do much better than "The Commitments" of this wonderful film. As far as films about music goes, there are few better than this one.

Just keep in mind that it's all about soul, and you should be alright.

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