REVISITING "THE COMMITMENTS."
True story: I was on the phone with my 91-year-old mother the other day and asked her if she’d seen "Rounders" yet. "Oh my yes," she said. ‘Red Rock West,’ ‘The Last Seduction,’ I see every film John Dahl makes." Would that we all kept up so well, but a lot of films slip through the cracks. One that almost did is Alan Parker’s 1991 film "The Commitments," and if you think about the studio suits’ reactions you’ll understand why. Try this pitch by the filmmakers on for size:
An unemployed young Dublin street hustler puts together a band made up of some scruffy, inexperienced losers to play and sing American soul music from the forties, fifties, and sixties. They work hard, they get a few gigs, they break up. End of the movie. Oh, and no stars, very colloquial Irish dialogue, and not much in the way of sex. So what do you think? Greenlight it for the $5 million production budget? Yes, I understand if you don’t want to sign the check just yet.
Meet "The Commitments," the unlikeliest great movie ever. No question. Next to "Singin’ in the Rain" this is the finest movie musical of all time. And don’t go away; there’s more. The director, Alan Parker, has without doubt the most bizarrely broad filmography of anybody working today. It includes everything from "Evita" to "Mississippi Burning," the FBI procedural about civil rights murders in the south, to "Midnight Express," about a young American jailed in Turkey for dope, to "Bugsy Malone," the all-child musical gangster picture, to "Fame," to "Shoot the Moon," which is about a middle-class family in the process of self-destructing, to "Pink Floyd’s The Wall," to, well, "The Commitments."
And how do we know "The Commitments" is a great movie musical? There’s a test. First, before a film -- any film -- is a musical it has to be a real movie, with people we care about, relate to, identify with. Then it has to have a believable storyline and a compelling plot structure. Finally, it needs great music, well performed. And the key is that there be an organic relationship among the three elements.
As an experiment, let’s apply this test to the most popular musical of all time, "The Sound of Music." Part one asks is this a real movie, as opposed to, say, a monstrous puddle of smarmy, infantile sentiment in which wafer-thin characters disappear without a trace. The answer, of course, is that "The Sound of Music" is a monstrous puddle of smarmy, infantile sentiment, and that nothing resembling a real human being is even visible in it. And while you might make a case for a monstrous puddle of smarmy, infantile sentiment having meaning of some kind, somewhere, it doesn’t work very well as the basis of a movie. Second, as to the question of whether it has a believable storyline and a compelling plot structure, we can only avert our eyes. And last but unfortunately not least, there is the question of the music. Since Rodgers and Hammerstein had long since run out of ideas and invention, and were already raiding their old songbook for whatever material they could recycle, the hills here are alive not with the sound of music but of self-plagiarization.
On the other hand, when we apply that test to "The Commitments," we get an entirely different result. Part one: Is this a movie? Absolutely. Amazingly real characters, each of them developed and not outlined with etch-a-sketch, whose dialogue and relationships grow out of their own personalities and life experiences. Part two gives us a believable plot, woven from disparate strands so that the film comes out structured as naturally as a documentary. As for part three, the music, well, either you love "Mustang Sally," "The Dark End of the Street," "Chain of Fools," "In the Midnight Hour," "Take Me to the River," and a dozen others, or you shouldn’t have read this far.
How did this movie get made? The script is an almost line-for-line rendering of the first of Roddy Doyle’s trilogy of novels about underclass life in Dublin, and Parker, who’s English, says he fell in love with it almost from page 1. The movie follows Jimmy Rabbitte, who scratches out a living selling bootlegged tapes and music-group T-shirts on the street. He has a fixation on the great black American R&B singers and songwriters, and he conceives the idea of starting a soul-music band to play that music, the songs of Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and the others. Why? Because, as he explains to the group of nondescript young singers and musicians he’s put together, "The Irish are the blacks of Europe, the Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and the North Siders are the blacks of Dublin." He names the band The Commitments, because they are committed to soul music. Is that a reason? Don’t ask.
So how can a film only the chosen few even know about be so good? Here’s how and why. "The Commitments" is the story of the creation, the rise, and the fall of the group -- bullied, cajoled, egged on by Jimmy, the driven one, the instigator, who is not a musician himself but is their manager, their nanny, their agent, their babysitter, doing whatever it takes to give the band vitality and get some bookings. The group are all in their teens and twenties -- a bus conductor, two workers in a meatpacking plant, a couple of high school and college students, one or two unemployed like Jimmy himself, one on probation for assault. Three young women from a church choir. And then the last addition is an older man, Joey "The Lips" Fagan, a trumpeter who says that he played in America with some of the great soul musicians years before, but has come back to Dublin to take care of his aging mother. He is both the conscience of the band and the cause of its downfall.
But what makes the film delicious to watch is that it is a comedy, and a very successful one. These are witty young people, who have a thousand-year tradition of jokes, one-liners, and insults to work with as they try to learn the pieces, rehearse, and perform. They dish it out and they can take it. They are stuck with a lead singer who is one of the great slobs of motion picture history. He offends all and charms no one but himself, and yet he -- young, white, fat, and obnoxious -- is a great soul singer. Part of the pleasure of the film, and the tension of the plot, is watching the gap between talent and catastrophe grow narrower and narrower. (I don’t know how to prepare you for this, so I’ll simply tell you that Andrew Strong, who plays Deco, the lead singer, was 16 years old at the time. If you’ve seen the movie you’ll understand what a shock that is. If you haven’t, you’ll watch the video openmouthed.)
Jimmy himself is a marvelous creation. He lives at home with a father who idolizes Elvis Presley and knows nothing of soul -- he’s played, incidentally, by Colm Meaney, the closest thing to a name in the film -- a younger brother with whom he shares a tiny bedroom, and two young twin sisters, who always speak in unison. Jimmy is forever interviewing himself -- in bed, in the bathtub, at a gig with the band as he stands at the urinal. "Well, Jimmy," he says at the band’s last make-or-break gig, where Wilson Pickett is scheduled to come and jam with them after his own concert, "Was the turning point the night Wilson Pickett came and jammed with you?" "It will be," he answers himself, "if the fucker shows up."
In 110 minutes the film is blessed with a thousand marvelous moments. When one of the backup singers, Bernie, drops out of the band, Jimmy goes to find her in a high-rise housing project that’s as ugly as the Robert Taylor houses in Chicago. As he goes in the door of the building, a young boy leads a horse in behind him. "You’re not taking him in the elevator, are you?" asks Jimmy. "Got to. He hates the stairs," says the boy.
And the songs. They’re an almost forgotten piece of Americana, popular only on ‘race’ records at the time, never crossing over to the general market until white musicians began covering them in later years. They have a beat like no other genre in popular music, and the harmonies are as gorgeous as a Mozart mass. They’re erotic love songs set to the beat of a gospel choir. They’re rigid stylistically, with little variation allowed in the way they’re played and sung. Just like church music, no improvising is permitted except for the lead vocalist, who’s allowed to sing all around the beat. But the backup and the instruments must hit every chord and harmony as though it were church music. The songs are powerful, and they have the excitement of great gospel music -- except that most of them are about sex. The best of both worlds.
FYI, the Commitments themselves do the playing and singing, live on film. Parker brought in a set of out-of-phase speakers to play the backup music lines during the filming, meaning there was no bleed into the sound mix so the group could be recorded without having to lip-sync. That live sound is what takes the film from the simply human to the sublime. Run, don’t walk to buy the video. You’ll eat your heart out that you can’t sing like Deco.
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