The British melodramatist and amateur muckraker Alan Parker has the blunt gift of a cartoonist, but he's not much good at filling out his movie-essays. Give him a cause - any cause - and he's likely to trivialize it. Set the cause to music, though, and you'll want to start dancing.
Thus is The Commitments relieved of the ponderous tone that afflicted much of Parker's past work, including spacey hallucinations about civil rights (Mississippi Burning) and the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II camps (Come See the Paradise). Ever the crusader from across the sea, Parker has now gone slumming in Dublin, and he's still concocting picturesque deprivations and moral uplift. But the engine of The Commitments - the story of the rise and fall of the first (maybe only) Irish soul band - mutes the familiar Parker virtuousness. His schoolboy messages this time sail along on a cleansing wave of backbeat.
Playing neorealist on the Irish capital's tough north side, Parker auditioned nearly 2,000 young musicians, actors, and unwashed civilians before casting the fictional band of the title. What he came up with is a spunky, spirited group of kids who bring off a minor miracle of ensemble acting in the spicy argot of the streets. Ten of the Commitments are musicians, but only two - Bronagh Gallagher, who plays back-up singer Bernie, and Johnny Murphy, the witty trumpet player - had ever acted before Parker committed them to film. Amazing.
But not as amazing, perhaps, as the spectacle of white working-class kids from the gray row houses of Catholic Kilbarrack bravely attacking "Mustang Sally," "Chain of Fools," and "In the Midnight Hour" while the Guinness-swilling mobs in tattered dance clubs shout them on. Why soul? According to the novel by Roddy Doyle (who adapted his own work for Parker's film, along with Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais), "The Irish are the blacks of Europe, and Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland." So the first instinct of young Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins), founder and manager of the band, is to play music "about struggle and sex," music "about where you're coming from and the sort of people you come from."
It's hard to know how Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, or Aretha Franklin would take to their unsolicited roles as the godparents of Dublin soul, but Jimmy Rabbitte's social logic makes a kind of sweet sense in The Commitments. The political particulars of the Irish Troubles remain off-screen here, but these bawdy, profane kids are hungry and deprived, that's clear, and no matter how badly they first mangle Joe Tex's chord changes or the down-and-dirty rhythms of "Bye Bye Baby," you're certain that they've lived a few of the lyrics. One of the deepest attractions of the movie is the way we, the audience, root for the band to get better. Parker complies, and by the end lead singer Deco Cuffe (Andrew Strong, a gravel-voiced man-child of sixteen) and the others could probably pass soul muster in Des Moines, if not Detroit.
Between the songs (they keep coming, from "Mr. Pitiful" to "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)" to "Take Me to the River"), the movie is packed with the bickering, breakaways, and ego trips you'll find in any show-biz biography. But these, too, produce their own pungent Irish flavor. When the saxophone player (Felim Gormley) begins affecting shades, a "jazz haircut," and Charlie Parker riffs, the others rag him for aspiring to "wanker music." And when the sloppy self-absorbed Deco hogs the limelight, he gets dumped off the back of a piano.
The small corners of the movie produce some wit, too. Jimmy's father (the wonderful Colm Meaney) displays just two photos in his parlor - one of the Pope, the other of Saint Elvis. But in the end he can't resist the Commitments' soulful message, either. In the beginning, the back-up singers (Maria Doyle, Angeline Ball, and Bronagh Gallagher) have to read their minimal lyrics out of notebooks, but by the time they work up their dance steps and pour themselves into slinky black sheaths, every random Vandella, Supreme, or Raylette in the house is likely to issue a knowing hoot.
The Commitments wouldn't feel Irish without a touch of tragedy, of course, and once again Parker and company oblige. Just as the band is reaching its peak (they're playing bigger clubs, and a couple of seedy music reporters and a low-rent record producer are waiting in the wings), it almost inexplicably breaks up. That takes the wind out of our sails, but there's also a certain inevitability in the choice. These are still the Catholic slums of Dublin, of course, and they are not all sweetness and light. That's the submerged point, in fact - that The Struggle, carried out for centuries, goes on, and even the most soulful combatants take their lumps.
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Directed by Alan Parker; written by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, and Roddy Doyle; from the novel by Roddy Doyle; with Robert Arkins, Michael Aherne, Angeline Ball, Maria Doyle, Dave Finnegan, Bronagh Gallagher, Felim Gormley, Glen Hansard, Dick Massey, Johnny Murphy, Philomena Kavanagh, and Jezz Bell.
Opens Fridays at major theaters in Dade and Broward counties.