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Review: The Commitments (1991)

The Commitments (1991)

Directed by: Alan Parker

Premise: Set in Dublin, an aspiring musician (Robert Arkins) gathers a ragtag group of fellow Irish youths to form a soul band called “The Commitments.” They play at pubs and local venues while developing their sound and struggling to keep the group together.

What Works: The Commitments is one of the classic “getting the band together” movies. The story matches the immaturity of youth with the fickle nature of the music scene and the combination is volatile, funny, and highly entertaining. Robert Arkins plays an aspiring Irish musician who finds inspiration in American blues music. Although he is geographically and racially separated from the origins of this music, the blues speaks to the struggles and aspirations of his working class life in Dublin. One of the outstanding qualities of The Commitments is its sense of place. Much of the movie takes place in dive bars and similar venues and the setting gives The Commitments a raw and authentic look that befits the music. Arkins’ character networks with a group of other musicians, most of them amateurs, and assembles a band that performs covers of blues standards. The band is talented but they struggle due to their inexperience and immaturity. While that instability doesn’t make for a reliable band, it does make for a great story and The Commitments intercuts musical performances with hijinks and drama. Robert Arkins is the rock at the center of the film and the passion and enthusiasm of his character is infectious. He’s surrounded by a cast of colorful characters such as the lead singer played by Andrew Strong and the band manager played by Johnny Murphy. The characters are well defined but they are also quirky and ungroomed, giving them reality and personality. The grounding of the movie is one of its distinguishing qualities. Unlike a picture such as Dreamgirls in which musicians reach the pinnacle of fame and success, The Commitments remains in the streets where most bands remain. The fate of this band has more reality than many glitzy show business cautionary tales. And in that respect, The Commitments earns its right to play the blues.

What Doesn’t: Anyone who is familiar with this kind of “getting the band together movie” ought to anticipate where The Commitments is going. The characters are vivid but they fit into types that are familiar to this kind of musical film and the rise and fall of the band mostly follows a predictable pattern. The Commitments transcends its formulaic qualities because the filmmakers tell this story so well and with such life and energy.

DVD extras: The twenty-fifth anniversary edition blu-ray release includes a commentary track, interviews, featurettes, a music video, image galleries, and a booklet.

Bottom Line: The Commitments sits alongside films such as Once and The Blues Brothers among the great musical films. While the story is predictable, The Commitments has some great musical performances and a terrific cast but also a sense of reality that is in touch with the spirit of blues music. 

Episode: #812 (August 9, 2020)