Great Film: “The Commitments”, The Perfect Introduction to Ireland

Happy belated Bloomsday.

If you know me well, you know my love of all things Irish, and The Commitments is the Alpha and Omega of that love. My appreciation for the prose of Joyce, the plays of Beckett and the poetry of Yeats traces directly back to the ten-piece band that thought it’d be a good idea to bring soul music to Dublin.

The Irish are among the most vocal of people. They have the lushest accent in all of English and, thus, the strongest singing culture of any nation in the world. Their “gift of gab” is a yardstick for English rhetoric that all writers and orators would do their best to study with discipline. Their sense of humor—mostly black humor, refined by a brutal history of colonialism and terror—is unflinching and unfailing. The magic of The Commitments is its exploitation of all of these elements to excess, and to perfection.

Based on—and improving on—a novella by Roddy Doyle, and directed by Alan Parker, Commitments gains much of its power from the clash of African-American soul and the Irish working class. Trying to introduce soul to Dublin may sound like the mother of bad ideas, at first, but our protagonist Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) steadfastly disagrees with that notion. He sees soul as the perfect conduit for the downtrodden to express their hopes, chutzpah and (often erotic) desires. The Irish are expressive, and their way with language indeed matches the blunt and deft qualities of the Motown classics, yet soul still offers a fresh perspective. Jimmy’s a dreamer. Like my last Great Film selection, Heat, this film does a masterful job of setting up an ensemble of distinct characterizations, quickly, with few if any false notes. That’s not easy, and Parker shows wisdom and patience in his decision to withhold the high comedy for the film’s opening minutes in favor of fleshing out Jimmy. Before a single laugh, we see him navigating a flea market—vibrant with kids, goats, smoke and color—pawning cassettes and fantasizing about an interview with radio jockey Terry Wogan. A hero we can root for has been established.

In forming and managing the first Irish Motown band, Jimmy has a formidable task ahead of him. The script, Parker’s direction and Arkins’ acting work in beautiful harmony to display this fundamental cultural conflict—namely, of searching for decent soul musicians in a nation unfamiliar with the genre—with satire, but without any hint of snark. To the extent that all Irish are endowed with musical and comedic talents, Arkins—a versatile musician who, astonishingly, does not perform at all in the film—displays his talents with subtle aplomb. When you’re getting the most kidney-aggravating laughs of your life out of seeing a guy asking the errant musicians knocking at his door “Who are your influences?” and slamming his door in frustration at every answer he gets, and out of seeing his reactions at the musicians he does let into his house to audition, you know you’re watching a classic. (Observe what he does with his cigarette.) Before then, at the breakfast table, Jimmy’s father (the great Colm Meaney) tries to turn him on to Elvis, a man he considers “God.” So it’s only inevitable that the script would then have the father walk in on a bathroom full of Pogues wannabes singing “Elvis Was a Cajun” and give him the opportunity to accuse that band of “fuckin’ blasphemy.”

Arguably even more so than Heat, Commitments demands to be studied for the skill with which it introduces and delineates character. Mickah Wallace (Dave Finnegan), the bouncer who will by a twist of fate become the band’s drummer, is accused of being a “savage” when his name is first brought up. In the next scene, the audience meets him on a stage, testing two microphones by banging them against his head. You really don’t need much more. This simple moment tells you most of what you need to know about Mickah: he’s tough, undaunted, a madman, but also uncannily likable. He turns out to be a charmer with elderly ladies. He’s Heaven when you’re on his side and Hell when you’re against him. His charisma is one of the film’s highlights.

Also a joy to watch throughout is Joey “The Lips” Fagan (Johnny Murphy, one of the film’s few pro actors), the band’s trumpeter. Moved to respond to Jimmy’s call for auditions by “Godsend,” he amazes the band with tales of sessions he claims to have played with such artists as Otis Redding, Elvis and Joe Tex that sound absolutely convincing, but that just can’t be true. He backs his stories up with physical evidence and his own ethos and integrity; even his mother is persuaded by them. Is Joey a con man? A madman? A ghost from the past? Is he having hallucinations? It doesn’t matter, and the triumph of Murphy’s performance is that we can never tell what’s up with Fagan. All we can do is go with what we’re given, crazy as it is. Even the film’s most clichéd presence—the singer Deco Cuffe (Andrew Strong, all of sixteen years during filming), a vulgar oaf who just happens to have the singing voice of a Detroit-bred hunk—is executed with winning bravado.

I’ve brought up some of the similarities shared by Ireland and soul, so let’s discuss their differences. The Irish dialogue of Commitments is thick, profane, brutal; soul is more accessible, just as carnal, but more romanticized. The linkage between the two takes some contrivance on Jimmy’s part, though there is a historical connection between the Irish and African-Americans. Both were enslaved by their respective imperialist goons; when the Irish came to America in spades to escape the potato famine, they were alternately in competition and in solidarity with the blacks, free and otherwise, over dirty grudge work. There is a debate in the literary world—the nuances of which I won’t bother with here—as to whether Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights is black, and the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton has made a case for him being Irish. So Jimmy’s case for soul being perfect for his homeland at once has precedent and demands a bit of a stretch. Showing film of James Brown doing what he did best, Jimmy lectures his band (one of whom is a young Glen Hansard, who went on to another solid Irish musical, Once) on his interpretation of their race: “Do you not get it, lads? The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once, say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud.” I’ll leave you to discover the facial reactions to that.

You can see that Doyle’s Irish is rather minimalist, more Beckett than Joyce, but it is never banal. As with the best minimalism, there is an iceberg theory at work here—an undercurrent of passion that assures that every word is le mot juste and rings with eloquence, that wastes not a second of the film’s two sprawling hours. Listen to this one snatch from Jimmy’s speech to the band on a train ride: “I want a strict diet of James Brown for the growls, Otis Redding for the moans, Smokey Robinson for the whines, and Aretha for the whole lot put together.” Crisp, succinct, well-paced, delivered with gusto. Jimmy proceeds to break into a monologue about the rhythm of soul, and its significance, so lively that it prompts the band to sing along to The Marvelettes’ “Destination Anywhere”. In a lesser film, this would’ve come off as a routine and a gimmick; this film earns it.

Then, there’s the comedy, which ranges from punchy one- and two-liners (“There’s a band around called Free Beer; always draws a big crowd”) to gnarly absurdist setups that still make me laugh with every viewing. On my DVD, there is talk in the retrospective interviews with the actors about how tough Irish humor is to understand for foreigners. Like the New Yorker’s cartoons, it takes thought and intellect, and it rewards. The interviews refer to the scene when Steve Clifford (Michael Aherne), the pianist and the band’s most puritan presence, goes to confession to state that he has forsaken his hymns for “‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ by Marvin Gaye”; the priest corrects him on the singer. A better example is when the saxophonist, Dean Fay (Félim Gormley), under Joey’s wing, improves his skills by fantasizing about sucking on Kim Basinger’s nipple. The joke is that as his talents grow, the whole time he’s playing the sax, he’s thinking about Basinger.

Of course, amidst the riot (the “HEROIN KILLS” sign, the outrageous first rehearsals and performances, a love scene set to the Shaft theme, Dean’s flirtations with jazz, and the chaos that ensues in that Mr. Chippy van are also among my most treasured gags), there are more serious, tender moments. I’ll take this time to, at last, focus on “The Commitmentettes,” the three ladies in the band who serve as backup vocalists. Imelda Quirke (Angeline Ball), the blonde whom the men lust over the most, has a family and a boyfriend who disagree with her choice of career, and who attempt to lure her away on a ferry on the eve of the band’s debut, in a tense scene. Bernie McGloughin (played with great ferocity by the Northern Irish actress Bronagh Gallagher) has a large family to look after and scant time for rehearsal, and Jimmy has to confront her in her apartment to learn about that. With two of their three women—and more members—on the rocks, the band finds itself held together by nebulous fibers, and we root for them to pull something off throughout. More characters means more conflict, and the film manages all the conflict in it with riveting economy. Rounding out the backup trio is Natalie Murphy (Maria Doyle, later a regular on The Tudors and Orphan Black), who develops feelings for Jimmy that he is forced to reject because of his work ethic, and because Joey’s wooing of all three women causes enough trouble. Her rendition of Aretha’s “I Never Loved a Man”, aimed at Jimmy, could well be the film’s emotional climax.

The ending has been criticized. The film culminates in a Big Event, a barroom concert that Wilson Pickett is scheduled to show up at for a jam session. The band’s blue-eyed versions of “Try a Little Tenderness”, “Chain of Fools”, “Mustang Sally” and Pickett’s own “In the Midnight Hour”, it ought to go without saying, are superb, and they conclude a magnificent arc spearheaded by the tumult of the band’s origins. Here, a keen chiasmus occurs: as the band’s music gets better, the backstage crises grow worse, and the long wait for Pickett becomes more beleaguering. Am I giving too much away by saying the band doesn’t survive the insanity? No, I don’t think I am because the film couldn’t have ended any other way. The higher you go, the harder your crash landing; the harder you work, the greater the pressure. There’s an honesty to that approach, and it buttresses the truth that permeates every word of Joey’s final talk with Jimmy, which I encourage every first-time viewer to listen to with care. As for Pickett, the film’s way of wrapping that up is different from Doyle’s book, and it’s the better and more heartbreaking outcome. One motif in the film is the debate as to the meaning—if there is one—of the opening lyrics of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”. In case you forget, they go like this:

We skipped the light fandango
Turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor
I was feeling kinda seasick
But the crowd called out for more

As Americans may struggle with Irish humor, so the Irish struggle to figure that out, but I think I got the message: the more “seasick” you feel, the more the “crowd” will “call out.” Those lyrics are the focus of the film’s justly famous final scene, which sees Jimmy back where he started, in his bathroom, putting on his Terry Wogan act. It’s a perfect closer, and Jimmy’s last line before the cut to black is one of cinema’s finest. When you have a small island nation’s worth of great singers, musicians, talkers, arguers, humorists and personalities collaborating and duking it out, you’re not likely to get a lasting musical act, but you’ll have plenty to get one of the best black comedies ever put on film.

This review is dedicated to the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Great Film: “The Commitments”, The Perfect Introduction to Ireland

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