A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1991: I’ve an arse here you can kiss.

THE COMMITMENTS (dir. Alan Parker)

tough to decide whose costume here is the most 1991

To repeat a sentiment I’ve used a lot in this space: The Commitments is not a capital-letter Great Movie, but in its low-key way it is a great little movie about music. It’s about the joy inherent to making music with other people, one of the great collaborative pleasures of life. And, equally, about the bullshit that can come along with it. Maybe bullshit’s too strong a word; friction’s better. Interpersonal disputes, technical problems, trouble booking shows, miscommunications, you name it—all the stuff that I spent years talking about (at roughly Commitments-level stakes) in Nowhere Band.

And the level of the stakes is important there. This Is Spinal Tap covered a lot of the same ground, but at a different level. For all that Spinal Tap’s career problems are central to whatever plot that movie has, they’re still big enough to play arenas (when they’re not opening for puppet shows) and release albums on major labels. The Commitments, on the other hand, are at ground level and they’re going to stay there. The Commitments’ world isn’t that different from the one the Awesome Boys navigate in Nowhere Band, or—not coincidentally—the real one my bands the Creekside Ruffians and Derailleur have moved through. It’s the world of bands that are never going to make anything more than beer money. And if that’s less glamorous than the world of pro musicians, it’s accessible and relatable, since it’s where most of us who own instruments are going to spend all of our time. It’s the reality of what making music is like for the vast majority of people making music. And it’s even still pretty aspirational, because, as the movie illustrates, it’s just a shitload of fun to play instruments and yell with other people.

Like This Is Spinal Tap, The Commitments succeeds largely because it captures so many perfect little truths. The torturous feelings of going through an unfamiliar song the first time and having it sound like total ass, morphing into the brilliant feeling of sunny success when it snaps into place with some practice and sounds good. The way a practice room can be filled with tension that dissipates the second you start playing. The feeling of “what the fuck” when you show up at what’s supposed to be a practice space or a show venue and is completely unsuited for the purpose. The bizarre, hilarious process of finding and vetting potential bandmates. The insane complications of getting your shit to a gig sometimes. The ecstasy when a show goes well, the dejection when one goes badly.

Because of all of this, I’ve always liked The Commitments. But when I was younger it felt a touch separate from me, for two interconnected reasons: that the Commitments were strictly a cover band, and that they were a cover band playing soul music, instead of rock. Time and learning have diminished both of those elements for me. The cover-band side is the lesser of these; I’ve just kind of learned that it doesn’t matter. Numerically speaking, most bands are cover bands. The norm in rock music for bands to write their own material really only exists because the Beatles and the people around them noticed how much better the money was if you were getting songwriting royalties; before that point in the development of rock music, *everyone* played mostly cover sets (and even now, based on craigslist looking-for-musicians posts, most bands are cover bands).

The conversation in this scene is pretty queasy, but also feels like the kind of conversation these guys would be having.

And then there’s the soul issue, which is bigger and maybe more interesting. When I was younger, that felt like it put some distance between the Commitments and the music I loved. Soul, I thought, was a type of music that I could respect and appreciate, but it wasn’t rock and it was fundamentally someone else’s music. But as I’ve learned from Andrew Hickey’s magnificent A History of Rock in 500 Songs podcast, there’s no meaningful difference. The people who we look at as soul musicians would have considered themselves rockers (sure, rockers who worked with some specific arrangement and recording conventions, but rock was and is full of little subgenre pockets). The distinction is an after-the-fact marketing convention applied to keep charts segregated and make sure that the conventional history of rock music was as white as possible.* So there’s that, along with the fact that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten a lot less stupid about rejecting music because this or that label was applied to it.

*That said, I do still feel a little weird about The Commitments’ scene where Jimmy Rabbitte gives his “the Irish are the Blacks of Europe” speech. I know what the intention is, but I don’t know that it lands. But then, Jimmy’s supposed to be at least a little full of shit.

On the other hand, no matter how much I’ve come to see that soul is fully a part of the musical tradition that I love, I still think “Mustang Sally” is a terrible song and one of my few beefs with The Commitments is how much you have to hear it.

I should mention that I love Roddy Doyle’s book nearly as much as the movie (and also that I love them both for giving me a way into exploring my Irish-descended identity that didn’t involve Notre Dame or St. Patrick’s Day). I’m actually not sure which I prefer between book and movie. The book feels a bit wittier and more complete, and a touch more grounded (consider Mr. Rabbitte, Jimmy’s dad; the movie’s screenplay writes him as something of a clown, and only Colm Meaney’s charisma makes the character work). But the whole thing centers on music, and the movie lets you actually hear it, and maybe that’s enough to tilt the balance.

Of the two Alan Parker music movies that I’ve seen (the other one being The Wall), The Commitments is the pretty clear winner.

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