Try as you might, there’s no resisting “The Commitments.” Yes, it’s sporadically slick, surfacy and manipulative (it is directed by Alan Parker, after all), but those are just words, and words don’t have a chance against the supple power of some of the most melodic, euphoric music ever written, a sound so potent it could probably liberate the world.
We’re talking, to borrow a phrase from the late Sam Cooke, about “that sweet soul music,” an entire Stax-Volt and Atlantic catalogue of classics like “Try a Little Tenderness,” “Mr. Pitiful,” “Chain of Fools” and “Mustang Sally.” Join those tunes to an energetic and photogenic group of youthful performers and a fantasy plot decked out to look like reality, and you have an astute formula for high-spirited, infectious entertainment that “The Commitments” executes with a brisk and breathless brio.
Taken from a novel by Roddy Doyle (who wrote the script along with veteran Brits Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais), “The Commitments” (at selected San Diego theaters) begins with a young man with a dream in a town without pity. Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) is Dublin, Ireland, born and bred, and music has always been his passion. The first in the neighborhood to have a Frankie Goes to Hollywood tape, his musical credentials are impeccable, and two friends, tired of playing retreads at local celebrations, ask him to help them form a new band.
Jimmy agrees, but only a soul ensemble will do for him. “The Irish are the blacks of Europe, Dubliners the blacks of Ireland, and Northsiders the blacks of Dublin,” he explains to his dubious pals. “And we would be working class if there was any work.” After rejecting names like A Flock of Budgies, the Commitments is settled on because “all the good ‘60s bands were ‘The Somethings.’ ”
Placing an ad in the newspaper stating his intentions, Jimmy, very much like the protagonist in “Seven Samurai” and “The Magnificent Seven,” goes about gathering his band of outsiders. He finds a lead singer in Deco (Andrew Strong), a tram conductor with an attitude prone to performing drunk at weddings. An aging “born-again” trumpet player, Joey (The Lips) Fagan (Johnny Murphy) shows up on a bike with credentials that run from Elvis to Otis and announces, “The Lord sent me.” And three of the comeliest of local girls are recruited as Commitment-ettes, the backup group no soul aggregation can be without.
Interestingly enough, director Parker instigated a parallel search when it came to casting this film. Shrewdly intent on a non-star ensemble, he organized an open casting call in Dublin that drew more than 1,500. Finally, of the dozen principal roles, only two were filled by professional actors, the other 10 by musicians (including 16-year-old Strong, with a raucous voice easily twice his age). And though many of them talk with fairly thick Irish accents, the context, if not always the exact words, is never less than clear.
A director known for bringing not the lightest of hands to some very heavy scenarios (“Midnight Express” and “Mississippi Burning,” for example), Parker has loosened up quite a bit here, not forcing the action as much as he did in the similar “Fame” and bringing a surprisingly loony touch to characters like Jimmy’s Elvis-obsessed father. No doubt complicit in this good humor is Parker’s cast, whose first-timer enthusiasm fills this film with the kind of cheerful, pulsating vitality it is impossible to fake and wonderful to share in.
Not only lively, these kids can play, and one of the most captivating things about “The Commitments” (rated R for language) is watching their inevitable jelling into a group to be reckoned with. Much of the film in fact comes to feel like MTV-with-a-plot, as Parker alternates video-like presentations of their songs with the inevitable tension, dissension, romance and rivalries that no self-respecting movie band lacks.
Fortunately, each aspect reinforces the other: We care about the singers because of what we know of their lives, and the strength of their performances help us forgive the cliched nature of their difficulties and the sketchiness of some of the characterizations.
Though the gritty environs of Dublin is a relatively unused setting for a film, the story “The Commitments” tells is hardly a new one, and one of the problems the film has is that its arc is awfully familiar. Also, Parker, ever the preacher, can’t resist imbuing Jimmy with a Bible-seller’s fervor about the benefits of soul music, which he imparts in brief, overly earnest pep talks.
But whenever “The Commitments” threatens to get bogged down in its own problems, Parker is savvy enough to pull it back with more of that invigorating music on the soundtrack. When that band starts to sing, the screen fills with genuine life, and that is too rare a commodity for anyone to second-guess for long.
Robert Arkins: Jimmy
Johnny Murphy: Joey the Lips
Andrew Strong: Deco
Maria Doyle: Natalie
Angeline Ball: Imelda
Bronagh Gallagher: Bernie
Felim Gormley: Dean
Dave Finnegan: Mickah
A Beacon Communications presentation of a First Film Company/Dirty Hands production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Alan Parker. Producers Roger Randall-Cutler & Lynda Myles. Executive producers Armyan Bernstein, Tom Rosenberg and Souter Harris. Screenplay Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais and Roddy Doyle, from the novel by Roddy Doyle. Cinematographer Gale Tattersall. Editor Gerry Hambling. Costumes Penny Rose. Production design Brian Morris. Art directors Mark Geraghty and Arden Gantly. Set decorator Karen Brookes. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (language).