The Commitments (1991)

Alan Parker made some vile movies (Mississippi Burning, Angel Heart) and his music films are generally gorgeous but musically tepid (Bugsy Malone, Fame, Pink Floyd The Wall, Evita – each a head scratcher in its own way). He’s not in the first ranks of directors – he came from advertising, which explains part of the problem – although I remember when he had enough promise that each new of his new films was eagerly awaited. Shoot the Moon is a small masterpiece, one of the best films about marriage. And then there’s The Commitments.

The Commitments is the best movie musical, period. It helps that music is its subject. A young man in Dublin recruits musicians to start a soul band. Nobody has any money, and they don’t play especially well at first. Day jobs and family commitments and squabbling amongst the band all get in the way. Eventually things start to click and their big break is on the horizon…

I love the music in this film. Andrew Strong was only 16 when he sang the lead role (his father was the one called to audition); a character says his voice belongs to God, which is about right. A young Glen Hansard is also present. We see the band learning to play together, as opposed to so many other musicals where nobody ever rehearses and it comes out polished the first time. We get to share the exhilaration when it all comes together, and when the audience starts to react. We recognize the frustration, the infighting and the jealousy when things aren’t going so well.

The Commitments is also a great comedy. It’s based on a novel by Roddy Doyle, and Gerry Hambling’s editing maximizes the jokes throughout. Colm Meaney has wonderful moments as an Elvis-loving father.

The best art reveals something – ultimately it’s about us. The Commitments gets at the heart of what making music means by telling a very specific story. Along the way, we’re given the gift of feeling what it’s like to be on stage. And we soar.

Hear this piece in Podcast Episode #7