The Commitments

My Rating:

Good music supports many characters in a movie about an Irish soul band trying to make it big.

Bitable Bytes:
"...Saw it, Loved it!..."
"Humor and Caring!"
"Very Credible Renditions of Soul Classics!"

What to do while watching:
Sing along! Why not? Let your hair down. Make the rock-and-roll face. Play air guitar. Do a solo. Then do an air-drum solo. Dude, give the bass some! All right!

What to eat while watching:
Salt and vinegar potato chips

On the evening of New Year's Day, Mrs. Worsted and I still didn't feel like leaving our cozy home. We hadn't rolled out of bed until noon, when the phone started ringing with family and friends. Some puttering around the house took up most of the rest of the day, and we weren't anxious to stray far from the fireplace, where an almond-wood blaze warmed us on that cold, newborn January evening.

It occurred to us to watch a movie, but neither of us felt like going the twelve long blocks to Blockbuster even in a car. That would have meant changing out of our sweatpants, slippers and comfies. We also didn't feel like watching our personal collection again. South Park 6: Mister Hanky is brilliant, but you can only memorize the entire thing one time, and I've seen it enough to have done that.

It occurred to my wife that our neighbors probably owned a few VHS tapes and might be willing to swap. Indeed, the first neighbors we called had several to offer. Number one: My Left Foot. Saw it, liked it. Number two: The Big Night. Saw it, loved it. Three: American Beauty. Saw it. Feh. And number four: The Commitments. Never saw it. At least I hadn't. Having enjoyed the soundtrack of this 1991 film for some time, I thought it strange that I had never seen the movie itself. Mrs. Worsted had seen it, but was keen to see it again, and so we skipped next door, still in our slippers, and traded Drunken Master and Latcho Drom (two of my personal favorites) to Leah and Cato. Back home, we popped in the tape and settled back for the soul music review.

Really, the music is the primary raison d'etre of The Commitments, both the film and the band that the film depicts. Jimmy (Robert Arkins) is a self-starting talent promoter in impoverished Dublin. He convinces his friends, a bassist and a guitarist, to form a soul band that he will manage. Soul, he expounds, is the most honest, working-class music there is. Therefore, the mission to bring soul music to the people of Dublin is tantamount to the mission from God undertaken by The Blues Brothers, in that (in many ways superior) film.

Auditions begin apace, and Jimmy finds himself having to turn away choral singers, lounge crooners, heavy metal dudes, punkers, accordionists (bad move, Jimmy), and many other ne'er-do-wells lured by his want ad and the romance of being in a band. With comic pacing that drags only a little too long, Jimmy at last has in the ranks of the band a saxophonist, a piano player, a drummer and a lead vocalist.

Mainly because he has a crush on one particular Dublin hottie, Jimmy invites three women in as backing singers. Also, a trumpeter shows up, an older dude who claims to have played with all the greats: B.B. King, Sam Cooke, the Beatles, you name them. Though the first rehearsal is rocky, these musicians turn out to be quite talented, each and every one.

But as the music gets better and the gigs get hotter, backstage bickering mounts. The lead singer is an intolerable boor. The trumpeter manages to seduce all three of the ladies in the band, creating tension between them and between the men as well. The saxophonist starts getting more into jazz and doing grandstanding solos. Also, all the equipment, procured on loan from a prominent thug, remains unpaid for too long, which precipitates a brawl.

The arc of the story is short and simple: the band goes from incompetence and nervousness to pomposity and egotism. As the shows get more and more soulful, the backstage fighting gets more and more bitter, until finally, it reaches the breaking point. On one fateful night, the fighting is enough to drive Jimmy to quit the whole scene.

Concurrently, Wilson Pickett is playing in Dublin. The trumpeter, claiming to have played with Pickett before, says he will try to bring him to the gig. Jimmy talks up the career-making jam session to the local papers, and sets all his hopes upon Pickett showing up. The Commitments' performance is amazing, but the trumpeter's connections aren't what they seem. What they actually amount to is never quite resolved, but the anticipation his tales cause reminds me a lot of The Big Night, a film in which two Italian brothers stake the success of their restaurant on having Louis Prima, the famous jazz trumpeter, attend their banquet.

The simple story has the flavors of humor and caring. Though none of the dozen or so main characters gets too much development, each is given enough to be draped in endearing light. Even the boorish lead singer comes off a lot more sympathetic to the viewer than to his band mates.

But the plot pales beside the musical numbers throughout. The band does very credible renditions of soul classics like Chain of Fools, Mr. Pitiful, Take Me To the River, Try a Little Tenderness, Mustang Sally, and so on. There is raw talent in the band, maybe not the polished combination that backed the Blues Brothers, but a sincere and honestly soulful group of Dubliners.

Relating to the musical focal point is an observation that the best dialogue in the movie is also that which relates directly to music, the tip on how to play the saxophone, for instance, or the explanation of why North Dubliners can feel at home playing a traditionally African-American musical form. So now that I've seen it, I no longer have to wonder about the movie. I can just enjoy the soundtrack, basically the point of the film.

Want to share a happy story with Gooden?

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For your collection: The Commitments (VHS), The Commitments (Soundtrack CD)

Gooden's reading: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J.K. Rowling

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