The Commitments is a very coarse film, extremely rough around the edges, and yet to its credit, the real appeal of this crowd-pleaser from Alan Curtis is the way that music is able to bring so much good into a dire situation. Because in some ways The Commitments are not just the christened “Saviors of Soul” but for one brief shining moment, they’re the “Saviors of Dublin” too.
It feels almost unfair to call The Commitments a cover band because although their debt is to soul and they cover soul tunes from the likes of the late great Wilson Pickett, from those tunes we begin to see the individuals coming into their own as together they create a sound that has the local crowds cheering in the bars and pool halls.
Their visionary leader is Jimmy Rabbitte a young man with ambitions to create a successful band that will play real music and in his humble opinion soul is where it’s at. Not the Beatles. Not the Stones. Not even U2. But the likes of “The Godfather of Soul” himself James Brown.
Far from being mere cultural appropriation, taking a very much African-American inspired music and imitating it, with The Commitments, their allegiance to soul seems to suggest mimicry is the highest form of flattery. And it seems like Jimmy as manager and the main ringleader sees this clearer than anyone else.
Soul represents something so simple and powerful and moving. A sound that speaks to the working class Dubliners in a way other strains of music simply cannot muster. So yes, Irish Soul sounds like an oxymoron but The Commitments prove that far from being incongruous, Irish Soul is capable of quite the following.
Part of the enjoyment is getting to know all the figures who play a part in the band’s journey and there are quite a few. Deco is the lead singer, a slobbish jerk who also has an impressive pair of pipes. Lead guitarist Outspan (Glen Hansard of Once fame) with other local lads filling in on saxophone, bass, and drums. The backing vocals are provided by a trio of gals including the fawned over beauty Imelda.
But the oldest member of the band Joey “The Lips” Fagan is a rather mythical figure with a laid back almost spiritual streak. It’s also no joke that he’s played trumpet with some of the biggest soul brothers out there. He too provides guidance to the band’s vision but sometimes he’s not as zen as he lets on. Getting so many different people together is bound to cause friction — namely shouting matches, fistfights, and more than a few hurt feelings. Strangely enough, these are some of the very places the story finds its comic inspirations. People constantly bickering and getting on each other’s nerves in this way or that.
Equally enjoyable are the actual rehearsals and jam sessions which in truth are the heart and soul of this film. No pun intended. The music is what matters in the community from street corner performances of Cathy’s Clown, a father belting out his best rendition of Elvis, and the most wholesome member of the Commitments, Steven, playing a rather soothing version of Whiter Side of Pale on a grand church organ. That’s the stuff that makes the movie buzz.
We see the energy that gets people to notice. Sure, it’s not the type of coverage that will make them into international sensations but with this film much like its progeny like Sing Street, you see the pure ability of music and song to enrich the world. They not only give the musicians a powerful avenue of expression and joy but those performances can evoke an equally gripping reaction from their audiences.
In the end, The Commitments as a group begin to split at the seams after a number of promising gigs, even a bit of cash for their efforts and a spot in the local paper. But in the end they implode and it’s probably for the best as everyone goes their separate ways. Maybe they never quite got around to jamming with Wilson Pickett, but they did play with him in spirit every time they put all their passion into one of his songs. It didn’t turn into some profound watershed moment in musical history, but like this film, it was a recurrently lively ride.