“The Irish are the blacks of Europe, Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and the North Siders are the blacks of Dublin.”
Alan Parker’s musical comedy-drama film The Commitments (1991) offers a glimpse into a world of the past, erecting run-down warehouses and flaming trash cans in the parts of Dublin that now host Google’s headquarters. Drenched in the realities of the not-too-distant past, the Irish-American-British co-production is based on Roddy Doyle’s 1987 novel of the same name. It’s one of the first in The Barrytown Trilogy focused on Dublin’s working class. So what makes this film such a cult classic?
Set in the Northside of Dublin, the musical comedy-drama follows Jimmy Rabbitte (Rovert Atkins), a young Irish music lover with managerial aspirations. He’s on a quest to start a working-class music band that will liven the hearts of Dubliners with soul music, appropriately dubbling the group “the soul of Dublin”.
His wild eagerness is spurred on by Joey “The Lips” Fagan (Johnny Murphy), a mysterious middle-aged trumpet player claiming to have performed with all the greats in the United States, including B. B. King. And so, Jimmy keeps pushing for the success of the eclectic band, refusing to be discouraged by their rowdy, crass ways and petty arguments. But will the mundane realities of their worry-laden lives manage to get in the way of success?
The Commitments offers a look back at simpler times, with kids hurling stones at each other’s heads on makeshift playgrounds that are actually dilapidated ruins in disguise. This hyperbole of the ravaged state of Dublin’s Northeners is elevated through the use of the film’s stripped-down imagery.
It’s encapsulated in the brown and grey hues that immediately bring to mind the sensation of grating dirt beneath our fingernails. This mastery of the small details of life is somewhat reminiscent of the works of the Polish filmmaker Stanisław Bareja. And on this backdrop of poverty, we see humour flourish, pure and escapist by nature.
Among the many witticisms that grace our ears are the recurring references to Sinéad O’Connor and her poor choice of hairstyles, the carnal cravings of the youth, and the dependence on swear words, which take on an endearing edge when spoken in the accent that gets savagely ridiculed, as well.
All this comes together to illustrate the predatory world of the disillusioned Dubliners, who bask in the short-sightedness of their aspirations. That is the main source of conflict within the film, forcing Jimmy to succumb to painful hair-pulling whenever his band discards professionalism in the name of momentary grandeur.
The story is quite simple at its core, with much of the film’s running time dedicated to the rousing performances that have inspired live concert renditions. Their magentism is the result of their likeness to John Landis’ The Blues Brothers (1980), not lacking any of the latter’s vigour or perfectly tailored mishaps. However, the comedic gold that illuminates the surface of The Commitments is the well-crafted inspection of its many characters, and the way their shortcomings bleed into their strained relationships.
This leads to many pseudo-wisdoms that tend to revolve around “the lord”, but their fickleness is reflected in the characters’ own false bravado. One piece of wisdom that does slip past the boundaries of the film’s feral dialogue is that “success is predictable, but failure is poetry”. And therein lies the resounding echo of the film’s relatability.
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