Filmed on location in Ireland, Alan Parker’s The Commitments, about a group of eager young men and women who form a hard-driving rock-and-soul band, is a postpunk variation on the director’s 1980 Fame. Fame wanted to be an exuberant celebration of youthful creativity. But you didn’t have to attend New York’s High School of Performing Arts to see that Parker’s portrait of life in that school was about as probing and heartfelt as a two-hour diet Coke commercial. The Commitments is far less glossy. Set in grimy, unemployment-racked Dublin, the movie features an appealing cast of nonprofessional actors who play their own instruments and speak in thick Irish brogues. Visually, it replaces Fame‘s upscale flash with a cool, rain-swept, where-the-streets-have-no-name grittiness. And so some people may be seduced into thinking that The Commitments is more ”authentic” than Fame was. Parker, though, hasn’t changed. He’s still serving up drama in empty, narcotic snippets — life as a series of sound bites.
Jimmy (Robert Arkins), the pivotal character, is a handsome young upstart — with his retro sideburns and slicked-back hair, he resembles the Clash’s Joe Strummer — who figures he’ll put a band together, even though he doesn’t play an instrument himself. He becomes the manager-impresario of the Commitments, a group of nearly a dozen young Dubliners who, under his direction, begin to play straight-ahead renditions of classic soul tunes. The movie, Parker’s version of a let’s-put-on-a-show musical, has a friendly, upbeat spirit. The relentlessly chirpy dialogue is meant to express a regional attitude — the traditional, mocking Irish response to everyday dreariness. But as Gertrude Stein reportedly once said to Ernest Hemingway, ”Remarks are not literature” — and they’re not drama, either. As The Commitments goes on, you begin to weary of the one-note characters, who don’t so much converse as exchange arch put-downs.
The musical performances are first-rate. Andrew Strong, who plays the lead singer, has a robust voice and a charismatically beefy presence; he does as impassioned an Otis Redding impression as you’re likely to hear. At the same time, there’s something deeply retrograde — indeed, a trifle absurd — about the notion that a band like the Commitments, who play nothing but conventional, bar-band versions of some of the most famous soul songs ever recorded (”Try a Little Tenderness,” ”Chain of Fools,” ”Mustang Sally”), could cause much of a stir. From the Beatles and the Stones to blue-eyed-soul bands like Culture Club and Simply Red, musicians in and around the U.K. have, for over a generation, incorporated the sound and spirit of American black music. The idea that the Commitments are doing something revolutionary by ”bringing” soul to Dublin is downright insulting. In Parker’s hands, soul music becomes little more than a self-serving metaphor — an easy symbol for ”commitment” and integrity. His film celebrates musical daring without having a shred of it. C