Program Notes: The Commitments (1991)
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“Hey, kids! Let’s put on a show!”
Heaven knows how many movies have taken that cry as their starting point (those Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musicals, for example ), but few have been as infectiously enjoyable as Alan Parker’s The Commitments.
This 1991 release from the director of Midnight Express, Fame, Mississippi Burning, Evita, and Angela’s Ashes is an amazingly tuneful, wildly funny, and unexpectedly touching yarn about a bunch of Dublin kids who form their own rhythm ‘n’ blues band and actually enjoy a bit of success before spinning apart through the centrifugal forces of money, ego, and outside obligations.
The film was adapted from one of three books published by Roddy Doyle in the early ‘90s and collectively known as the Barrytown Triology. The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van were all dialogue-heavy yarns of working-class life with each novel centering on a member of the Rabbitte family.
The Commitments follows 22-year-Jimmy Rabbitte as he wheedles and schemes to form and manage a band with other young people from the neighborhood.
Among the player/actors is Glen Hansard, who 20 years later would star in the low-budget hit Once and win an Oscar for co-composing the song “Falling Slowly.” One of the girl backup singers is played by Maria Doyle, who as Maria Doyle Kennedy had the recurring role of Catherine of Aragon in cable’s The Tudors and most recently played Mr. Bates’ evil ex in Downton Abbey.
Parker’s biggest find, though, was Andrew Strong, the beefy, ponytailed son of a Dublin vocal coach who at age 16 had the chops of a veteran soul performer. As the sloppy, crude, boorish Deco Cuffe he steals many of his scenes, especially the musical ones.
The film’s highlights are the musical numbers, which offer a fine cross section of soul classics: “Mustang Sally,” “Take Me to the River,” “Chain of Fools,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” “In the Midnight Hour,” “Do Right Woman.”
In fact, the film was the beginning of Strong’s professional singing career. He has released several albums, one of which went platinum.
For a brief time after the release of the film the actors actually toured as a band, helping The Commitments soundtrack album become a best seller. It hit No. 8 in the USA, No. 4 in the UK, No. 2 in Australia, and No. 1 in New Zealand.
In the 22 years since its release, The Commitments’ reputation has only grown. The year it was released it won BAFTAs (the Brit version of the Oscars) for best film, best director, editing, and screenplay adaptation.
Even more telling, in voting sponsored in 2005 by Jameson Irish Whiskey, The Commitments was named the best Irish film of all time.
Well, there have been heavier-hitting films out of Ireland, but few as purely pleasurable as this one.
Other films in the series “Luck of the Irish”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- March 2: My Left Foot (1989) Rated R
- March 9: Odd Man Out (1949) Not Rated
- March 16: Once (2006) Rated R
- March 23: Bloody Sunday (2002) Rated R
- March 30: The Commitments (1991) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.