A Cultural Phenomenon Ian Likes: The Commitments

Jimmy Rabbitte wants to start a band. He doesn’t want to sing or anything: he wants to create and manage one. But he lives in the backblocks of Dublin. How is he going to manage that? All he has is his knowledge of music, a glib tongue, and two friends, Outspan and Dean, who want him to manage their own flailing band…

Roddy Doyle sprang from nowhere in 1987 with his first novel, The Commitments, and has barely looked back. He’s won most literary awards you can think of, has had more bestsellers than most writers and, to make matters worse, is ridiculously talented and readable to boot. His readability comes from the vividness of his characters and his economy of prose: as other people have said, most of his novels are carried through dialogue, with very little description given to locations or characters beyond some basic details. And that’s fine: I often build up a picture in my head of characters based around what they say or think. So when I read a sentence like:

“Jimmy knew what was new, what was new but wouldn’t be for long and what was going to be new.”

I feel like I’m in safe hands: I’ve known a lot of guys like Jimmy. I’ve even liked some of them.

The Commitments is the story of a group of young people in Dublin in the 1980s trying to make it big. However, rather than striking out for the big time in the fields of folk or pop music like so many successful Irish bands did at the time, Jimmy wants his band to have – and play – soul. Or rather, Soul. The spirit of Motown runs extensively through this novel, which doesn’t jar with it’s Irishness as much as you might think: the characters all love music and talk about it constantly – not just the music, but what it means and what it means to them – and you just get completely involved in them and their story.

Jimmy recruits his band through classified ads, word of mouth and friends of friends. They rehearse in sheds and attics, suffer setbacks and crises of confidence. But then they have a first gig that ends disastrously, then a second that runs a lot more smoothly, and it seems like the fairytale is about to begin for them…

I’m leaving it there: I don’t want to ruin it for you if you haven’t read it before. Or watched it. Because it was made into a terrific film as well. Adapted by Doyle himself, collaborating with a couple of giants of films and television, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (The Likely Lads, Porridge, Auf Wiedersehn, Pet, Chicken Run to name but a few).

The result was a film that was remarkably faithful to the book. Like the book it captured the despair and poverty of the band members’ lives (long before it was fetishized by filmmakers in the wake of Angela’s Ashes), but it also highlighted the joy that can found in being a part of something bigger than yourself. It’s also a lot more visual than the book – and before you utter that, “What?!”, which I know isn’t far from your mind, I can explain. A movie is inherently visual in nature. It’s a moving picture, after all. A book, on the other hand, can be even more so if you approach it with the right mindset. One of the problems that many adaptations of books to the screen suffer from is that the characters or settings don’t match up to what readers visualise in their minds (there are other issues as well, but that’s a debate for another day). What The Commitments has going for it in that respect is that many of the characters and locations are described very sparsely, leaving you to fill in a lot of the blanks. It may have been Doyle’s first novel but he got his start writing for the stage where the characters are often described in terms of age and general appearance, with the dialogue speaking more for the personality of the character than the prose. Doyle’s words are on the screen for us to hear, and they are uttered by actors who become those characters.

And they are played superbly by a largely inexperienced cast, many of whom had never acted or sung before. Directed sensitively by Alan Parker (Fame, Midnight Express, Evita), they look like people we see crossing the street or doing their shopping every day. May of them have become famous – Jimmy’s sister (who has little dialogue and does not sing) is played by Andrea Corr who later went on to form a band with her siblings; Outspan is played by Glen Hansard, who was already a member of The Frames at this point – while the two most famous members of the cast are probably Colm Meaney (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) and Peter Rowen who has one scene in the film but had featured on the covers of two U2 albums, Boy and War. However, the standout discovery of the movie was Andrew Strong who played Deco, the arrogant lead singer. Strong’s voice suits the soundtrack wonderfully and he built a moderately successful career on the back of his performance.

And it is the soundtrack that the film is most famous for. Featuring a variety of soul classics, it is mostly sung by the cast themselves. It performed extremely well, reaching Number 1 in Australia and spending 18 months in the Billboard charts. There was also a Volume 2 released about a year later. However, like a lot of soundtracks it is best listened to in conjunction with the film, as it does come across as fairly ordinary after a few listens: it’s competent and fun, but beyond the novelty of it being performed by members of the cast, it doesn’t feel terribly special: the songs have no common link beyond featuring in the movie, so you don’t even get repeated themes and motifs like in a conventional soundtrack. It’s just a collection of songs. That said, I love the versions of “I Can’t Stand The Rain”, “Destination Anywhere” and “Take Me To The River.” It’s also great for car trips.

I first saw this on its original cinematic release way back in 1991. It was great fun, and memorable not just for the music but for the truly astonishing use of the word “fuck” in the screenplay. I was also struck by the performances of the young cast: I felt like I was watching a bunch of real people rather than characters. Nobody was giving performances that would win awards (although Andrew Strong was nominated for one, and the production team took home a bundle), but I found them believable and understandable, behaving like people who were around my own age at the time rather than idealised versions of some scriptwriter’s ideal of what young people behave like. Doyle was a high school teacher at the time that the novel came out, which must have informed a lot of choices about character and voice. I loved it: I’ve mentioned before that I was deeply involved in amateur theatre around this time, and the struggle these people were having at making some kind of success of themselves struck a definite chord with me. There’s a scene where Bernie (played by Bronagh Gallagher) has a discussion with Jimmy about her lack of attendance at rehearsals because she has to look after the younger members of her family, and almost begs him not to fire her because she really needs something like this in her life. That really resonated with me at the time: it speaks to the importance of having some kind of creative outlet in your life and how it can change your outlook and impact on your own life. It’s something that we’ve realised over the last couple of years of the pandemic, as well.

It was another dozen or so years before I read the novel. And that had an even greater impact than the film. Mostly that was because I’ve always preferred books to films but it was also part of an omnibus that featured two other novels (The Snapper (1990, filmed in 1993) and The Van (1991, filmed in 1996)) that focused on Jimmy’s sister, then his father. They are terrific books as well. I’m also on the lookout for the fourth novel in the series which puts the lens back on Jimmy and his life. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m looking forward to it: Jimmy’s an old mate at this point and I do want to find out what he’s been up to.

You can find out more about Roddy Doyle at http://www.roddydoyle.ie/

Find out more about the film at https://alanparker.com/film/the-commitments/making/

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