Director: Alan Parker
Screenplay: Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, Roddy Doyle
Based on the novel by: Roddy Doyle
Producers: Roger Randall-Cutler, Lynda Myles
Starring: Robert Arkins, Angeline Ball, Andrew Strong, Colm Meaney
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 118 minutes
Alan Parker’s film adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s novel about an aspiring Dublin soul band has received widespread critical acclaim since its original release and spawned two successful soundtrack albums and tours featuring the cast members performing as the fictional titular band. As a music lover, a fan of British filmmaking and a devoted disciple of comedy, I fully expected to join the ranks of those clamouring to praise The Commitments when I first saw it on TV years ago. And yet the film left me cold, I didn’t have quite the good time I was expecting and I walked away feeling an empty sense of dissatisfaction. As I often do with films so beloved of so many people, I decided to give the film a second chance and RLJ Entertainment’s new 25th anniversary release offered me the perfect opportunity. Sad to report then that, while the new release will likely please existing fans with its plentiful extras, I got as little out of the film the second time round as I did the first.
The Commitments has a lot going for it. An enthusiastic cast, an almost constant soundtrack of popular songs and sitcom veterans Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais on writing duties. Of these virtues, the cast is the most effective asset. Given its themes of elusive fame, it seems entirely appropriate that even 25 years later there are few faces that film fans will recognise among the cast. Many made few, if any, further appearances on the big screen while others chose to pursue careers in music instead. Recognisable figures do appear, such as Colm Meaney as an Elvis-obsessed ageing rocker, Sean Hughes as an A&R man and Andrea Corr (of 90s sensation The Corrs) as main character Jimmy’s little sister, but The Commitments is at its best when these minor characters are off-screen. The film’s story of a bunch of down-at-heel hopefuls reaching for the stars is far more effective without any real-life celebrities shattering the illusion.
The biggest draw of The Commitments for many is probably the music. The soundtrack is stuffed with soul classics recreated by the band, with vocals recorded live to capture a sense of real performance. Unfortunately, as a fan of soul music myself, this proved to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks of the film. Although the band are shown to be embraced by an ever-growing crowd of fans, the music sounds insipid, robbed of its power by technically good but edgeless performances. Sure, Andrew Strong who plays lead singer Deco has a powerful voice but something is missing. For all the impassioned speeches about how soul music is sex, the soundtrack seems flaccid. The film’s opening sequence shows two of the band’s members stuck playing in a substandard wedding band, from which Jimmy liberates them. But The Commitments, even at their fully developed stage, sound just as lacking in heart and… well, soul as the limp covers act they openly mock.
And then there’s the script. Two words you will find reiterated in nearly ever review of The Commitments are ‘warm’ and ‘witty’ but I found the film to be neither. Sure, there are a few chuckles here and there but for the most part the apparent character comedy amounts to little more than outright obnoxiousness, with scene after scene ending with a raucous roar of “FUCK OFF” in lieu of a punchline. The warmth we are supposed to feel should radiate from the characters but The Commitments has too many and spreads itself too thinly trying to accommodate them all. Robert Arkins as band manager Jimmy Rabbitte gets the most screen time and gives a promising turn which makes it surprising to discover that he barely acted in anything else. But even Jimmy is sparsely characterised beyond his obsession with fame, his habit of interviewing himself about the band offering the film’s best scenes. Johnny Murphy is also good as Joey ‘The Lips’ Fagan, a middle-aged trumpet player who claims to have played with music’s greatest icons but never quite confirms this to anyone’s full satisfaction. Despite his age and apparent halitosis, Joey sleeps with all three female members of the band, a flimsy joke which is typical of the thin characterisations and unexplored motives that recur throughout the film.
In terms of plot, The Commitments never aims for a conventional structure. This isn’t even a rise-and-fall story. The band is a non-starter, collapsing in on itself before their big shot at fame has a chance to take hold properly. This loose structure could have been to the film’s credit had the writing or direction taken advantage of the opportunity for showcasing the film’s young performers but each cluttered scene follows a similar pattern in which a seemingly harmonious gathering descends into chaos on weakly defined pretexts. It’s far more frustrating than it is amusing and ultimately I was left not caring whether the band succeeded or not. The pay-off to a plot strand in which Joey promises to get Wilson Pickett to perform with the band is so desperately predictable that it almost becomes unpredictable because you can’t quite believe they’re going to put such a tired old trope in there.
The Commitments has managed to endure down the years thanks to a strong fanbase who obviously felt quite differently about the film than I did. If you love music, comedy, film or all three, I would not want to discourage you from watching The Commitments in the hope that it might ring truer for you. But sadly, for me, all this film had to offer was two long hours of mirthless, formless noise with the odd break for a soulless tune.
The Commitments is released by RLJ Entertainment on DVD and Blu-ray on 19th September 2016. For fans of the film, these releases come highly recommends as the extras are plentiful and enjoyable:
- 25 Years Later – new interview with Alan Parker and the cast
- Audio Commentary with Alan Parker
- Four behind the scenes featurettes