I first saw The Commitments when it came out in 1991, and I enjoyed it. At the time I lived in Basingstoke, but someone has to and we shall speak no more of that.
I next saw it last night and enjoyed it even more. What’s changed in my life, apart from an extra 18 years maturity? Well, somewhere along the line I’ve picked up a nodding acquaintance with a lot more music. I’m not sure how, from someone who still listens to Classic FM more than any other radio station (with Radio 4 a close second), but it’s happened. Part of it certainly comes down to former colleagues and associates forming The Limitations in the 1990s. That was eye and ear opening, and I owe them the thrill of recognition that I finally got at the intros to all the old soul classics.
The rest of it is just being alive, I suppose, and keeping an ear to the ground, and developing as Me. When I moved here I knew that if I could possibly afford it, I wanted to live on my own because I had never quite managed that before. I wanted to find out what I was like, without outside interference, and develop any areas that needed developing. It meant going short on stuff for a few years but it was worth it. I just hadn’t realised how worth it it was.
On to the film and, okay, the plot of The Commitments could be written on the back of an envelope: band starts up, personal differences emerge, band collapses on the brink of greatness. But (as I endlessly explain to our resident Media student, but he insists on ignoring my wisdom), it’s not what it’s about that matters in a film but how it’s about it. One of the joys of The Commitments is its sheer Irishness.
I’m sure I didn’t recognise Procul Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale back in 1991, so I completely missed the joke of it being belted out on a church organ during practice by the band’s keyboard player, together with the in-depth discussions (and the movie’s punchline) as to what the lyrics actually mean. And I certainly didn’t get the irony of playing 24 hours from Tulsa at a wedding reception. (“I hate to do this to you / But I love somebody new …”)
The keyboard player mentions in the confessional that where he used to sing hymns to himself, now he just hums “When A Man Loves A Woman” by Marvin Gaye. The priest’s voice corrects him through the grill: “Percy Sledge”. Our heroes play their first gig as part of the vicar’s anti-drugs campaign, under a banner saying “Heroine kills” (sic) with the second e mostly blanked out. At another gig an accidental collision of mike stand and bass guitar makes the bass player the earth for the entire electrical system.
The band plays soul because “the Irish are the blacks of Europe, and Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and Northsiders are the blacks of Dublin”. And they are good. The cast were chosen for their musical ability before their acting (though neither is bad). And after two hours we get their last and best gig, where you just want to get up there and dance with them as they pound out “Try a little tenderness” and “Take me to the river” and “In the midnight hour”. As the last note plays they are glowing. They know they work as a band. They have achieved something marvellous. Then they go off stage and effortlessly self-destruct.
There is no deep message to the film, but there is poetry, as is pointed out by one of the most engaging characters, Joey “The Lips” Fagan, who may or may not have played with Wilson Pickett and Little Richard and Elvis and all the greats, but who effortlessly works his way through the backing singers. Sure, they could have got famous and made lots of money … but where would be the artistry in that?
At one point the manager, Jimmy, is waiting for the lift in a tower block and finds himself standing next to a boy and a horse.
“You’re not taking him up in there?”
“I have to,” the boy replies. “The stairs’d kill him …”
And that’s all Jimmy, and us, need to know.