[Okay, I’ll be honest – this is barely a Fox release. Produced by Beacon Pictures (their first), it was only distributed by Fox; even the home video rights was handled by MGM/UA. But I couldn’t help including it. You’ll see why in this review.]
The Commitments was given the unfortunate release date of August 14th when it came out in 1991. But then, it wasn’t exactly supposed to be a blockbuster, just a modest crowd-pleaser about an Irish R&B band, directed by no stranger to musicals, Alan Parker. The low-profile approach worked: though by no means a commercial hit, word of mouth turned it into a cult favorite, and helped launch a genre. You know, flicks about small town, blue collar workers somewhere over the pond, who get out of their doldrums by stripping (The Full Monty), dancing (Billy Elliot), designing ladies wear (Kinky Boots) or supporting gay rights/labor unions (Pride). These films nearly always work because the verisimilitude is so authentic, and the characters so immensely likeable. This last item says a lot for The Commitments, where part of the problem with the band is that its members are always at each other’s throats.
But The Commitments’ greatest asset is its music. We have absolutely no problem believing their success, short-lived that it is, because they’re so damned good. Director Parker knows that’s what we came for, and he doesn’t waste time with the obligatory, boring set up scenes of rehearsals, starting out bad and then gradually getting better. He gives us one rehearsal scene, period, and ends the film with nearly a solid half-hour of music, including Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” and “Midnight Hour.” And knowing that these essentially concert scenes need to be cinematic, he makes them eye-catching without being flashy. It’s a nearly perfect movie musical.
But this is not to say there’s no plot – it’s there all right, but it’s mostly character driven, essentially about the highs and lows of putting together a blues/R&B band in the age of metal and punk, with musicians struggling to make ends meets 24/7. It all starts with Jimmy Rannitte, young entrepreneur with his sites set on creating a band. No, not a boring old R&R band, or even a jazz band, but a great, old-school R&B group in the rough, raw tradition of BB King, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. Of course, collecting up all the talent he needs for such a project ain’t easy – a lot of people want the fame associated with taking the stage, but Jimmy has high standards. (His auditions for a lead singer – the lynchpin of the band – are a tedious process indeed.) But, after all is said and done, he gets his band – a pianist, a sax player, a trumpet player, a drummer, a lead and bas guitarist, three backup singers and a lead singer (clearly modeled after the intensely strained vocal style of Joe Cocker). They are the Commitments.
But it’s not long before friction ensues. The self-spiritual sax player has a proclivity for the women, promptly bedding all three of them, successively, inciting tension amongst the girls and with his bandmates. The lead singer can’t seem to get along with the drummer, the pianist has a Catholic-induced crisis of conscience with his involvement, and the manager has money problems with just about everyone. The only time, it seems, that the band gets along is on stage – when they focus on nothing else but the unifying, driving beat of the music. They get a shot at the big time one night at a local bar where Wilson Pickett is expected to show up – everyone sings ad plays their heart out. But Pickett never shows, and Jimmy disregards a potential record deal when he sees his band infighting yet again. It’s not worth it, he thinks, until he realizes the hope in instilled in his band members’ lives, and in an epilogue we realize how each one of them took that hope on to future endeavors.
I have to say that I loved this film. Everything felt so immediate, so real – the music the dialogue, the setting. As I mentioned, this is a perfect example of a British blue-collar drama - a film so knowing, honest and loving of its characters. They drink with each other, swear at each other and fight with each other, but somehow it all feels so innocuous. (The film gets its R rating from abundant use of the “F word,” yet the Brits use it so freely, so inoffensively.) Americans can’t do this kind of film. It either turns out to be overwritten, so you think there’s no way in hell these salt-of-the-earth types could possibly speak in this kind of lofty language. Or it plays it broad and sanctimonious, tagging at your heartstrings that these poor are so noble, and just need a break to wipe the soot off their s shoes. The Commitments never grandstands – it just is.
I was particularly moved by the ending – Wilson Pickett does eventually show up, too late. But it wouldn’t have mattered. It would’ve just extended the Commitments’ dream that much longer – their die was cast from the minute they formed. What the film tells us is that wish-fulfillment never really lasts, but aren’t we fortunate to have those wishes fulfilled in the first place? Jimmy tells us this in so many words as he fake-interviews himself in a mirror – a brilliant device that runs throughout the film and acts as a sort of Greek Chorus. It lets us know his dreams, his goals, as well as his disappointments. It gauges the ebbs and flows of the film’s narrative.
And then, once again, there’s the music. I bought the soundtrack, and haven’t stopped listening to it. These actors play the group, but I had no trouble believing that they were the group themselves (not unlike This Is Spinal Tap). I’d easily see them in concert.
This was a film that I caught up with on video, probably in ’92 after the word of mouth. At the time, young film snob that I was, I admired the technique but was ho hum about the “lack of plot” and “oldie” music. I couldn’t disagree more, young Chris, with your critique.
This is a musical film for the ages.
See it, on a TV with a good sound system.