The Commitments

The Commitments (1991)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Cast: Robert Arkins, Angeline Ball, Johnny Murphy, Andrew Strong
Extras: Documentary, Music Video

"Dublin Soul" is one of the terms coined by this movie, and it is a surprisingly appropriate one. "The Commitments" has long been one of my favorite music films for a variety of reasons. For one it has a very unique charm, being placed in the working class suburbs of Dublin, Ireland. Second of all, it features an incredible cast with an impressive vocal range and expression, and most importantly it features some absolutely cool music. Alan Parker is a remarkable director and has created a number of truly memorable music related films, like "Fame" or "Pink Floyd’s The Wall", but also some astonishingly serious and dark movies, such as "Angel Heart", "Birdie" and "Mississippi Burning" among others.

Of all his films, "The Commitments" has always been my favorite one, maybe because I could identify with it the most, but more so because of its sincerity and authenticity.

Like many other teenagers of his age, Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) is obsessed with the thought of breaking out of the slums of Dublin where he is raised. Although he does not play any instrument, he plans to set up a band that will make the breakthrough to international stardom and get him, his family and his friends out of the hopelessness of their working class environment. After hooking up with two of his friends he places an ad in the newspaper to find more people to form the band he would manage. Countless auditions later he finally has a small group of individuals who are supposed to play what Jimmy has in mind. "Dublin Soul" he calls it. No rock and roll, no folk music, the blackest soul music Ireland has ever heard. "The Irish are the blacks of Europe. Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. North Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin," he states emphatically to get his message across, as his bandmates look at him in blank stares.

After adding some local backup singers – mostly to get the chance to shag up with local beauty Imelda Quirke (Angeline Ball) – the band calls itself "The Commitments" and starts practicing. Under Jimmy’s scrutinizing eyes and instructed by their music biz veteran horn player Joey "The Lips" Fagan (Johnny Murphy) they start working on a repertoire of pithy souls tunes and land their first gigs in small bars around Dublin’s north side. "The Hardest Working Band In The World" is the slogan under which Jimmy promotes the band, but soon it becomes evident that frictions within the group create an explosive mix that hinders their success. Desperately Jimmy holds on to his dream and uses all tricks of the trade to get them to play in bigger venues, and one day the chance of a lifetime comes up. Their hero, soul legend Wilson Pickett is in town for his own tour, and has promised to play with the band during one of their gigs… or is it all just another one of Joey "The Lips"’ make-believe stories?

Everyone who has ever played in a band will find that "The Commitments" is practically exploding with realism when it comes to the backstage escapades of the band, although it seems vastly exaggerated in the film when everyone goes against everyone. It leaves Jimmy constantly struggling, just to keep the bunch together, let away have them practice their program. Egos, personal problems, dire straits, relationships, the first money, the light at the end of the tunnel, everything is nicely portrayed and packaged by director Alan Parker in this film. He creates a compelling story of a band that has a lot of potential but ultimately too many personal problems and ballast to ever make it out of the cellar. The fights, arguments and the struggle are just too familiar to not strike a chord with the viewer. The way Parker goes about building up the story to its finale is tastefully and masterfully choreographed to create the musical density the film needs, while leaving enough room to tell the story of the people involved. The energy and chemistry created by these people results in a powerful mix that actually creates a "band" rather than a bunch of actors posing as one. It is easy to spot that these folks know how to play their instruments and that the expression on their faces is real and honest.

The music in "The Commitments" is phenomenal, consisting of a series of well-known soul standards, reinterpreted to give them a new sound and feel, making them look quite impressive even compared to the original recordings, sometimes even eclipsing them, as is the case especially with "Mustang Sally". Singer Andrew Strong, who plays Deco in the movie, is just as mesmerizing the first time you hear him, as he is the umpteenth time. At the age of 16 by the time the film was shot you would not believe what kind of vocal range, maturity and soul this kid is bringing to the table. It is surprising that he has not been able to make build a solid career with it, although he is still a recording artist from what I understand. Although the entire cast of the film is consisting of newcomers, the quality of the acting is amazing, creating very natural characters that are at home in the run down low-life suburbs of Dublin. Shot entirely on location in Dublin, this film is a great lesson that not everything in Europe is as clean and rosy as it appears from postcards either, if you have ever had a romanticized view on Europe as a whole.

20th Century Fox Home Video presents "The Commitments" in a <$PS,fullscreen> presentation on this disc. I have been unable to accurately determine the film’s original aspect ratio, but it seems to be 1.66:1. In that case the DVD supposedly contains an open-matte transfer of the film that actually adds picture information at the top and bottom of the screen. The transfer is gorgeously clean and nicely reproduces the cold and barren outdoor environments found in the film as well as the atmospheric and colored concert settings. The transfer itself seems to be a little smooth however, although the general level of detail is very good. Color reproduction is mostly faithful, although a slight red over-saturation is clearly evident in a number of scenes. Fleshtones are generally natural. The disc shows off deep blacks that give the image a great depth with good and well-balanced highlights that never appear overly harsh – other than what Parker had intentionally tried to create. No compression artifacts or <$chroma,chroma noise> is evident in the transfer, resulting in a great presentation of the movie on this DVD.

"The Commitments" contains a <$DS,Dolby Surround> soundtrack that is just as lively and energetic as the entire film. Well produced, it creates an engrossing sound field with good use of the surrounds. The disc contains an English audio track and English, French and Spanish subtitles. Since the film is presented in the original Irish dialect, the subtitles can really come in handy – at least they did for me. The Irish soundtrack adds greatly to the film’s general credibility and freshness, presenting us the actors as living and breathing people, talking their very own talk.

The disc also contains a 10-minute "Making Of" documentary that mostly features footage from the film and some interview snippets with director Alan Parker. While it is not revealing all too much new, it is nice to see him at work with the band behind the camera. A music video and info on the audio CD sampler are part of the release.
As I said in the beginning, "The Commitments" is one of my favorite music films, and the presentation 20th Century Fox is delivering here on this DVD is great. Great pictures, great story and absolutely energetic music dictate the film. If you’re a fan of good music films, you have to check out "The Commitments". This is as good as they come.