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‘The Commitments’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 13, 1991

Alan Parker's sexy, hilarious, exuberantly energetic new film, "The Commitments," has so much rhythmic juice that it's nearly impossible to stay in your seat. The film, which follows the roller coaster ups and downs of a group of poor Northside Dubliners who come together to form an Irish soul band, gets into your blood like an Aretha Franklin song; it's a transfusion of pure joy, raw and earthy and transcendently funky -- the best rock-and-roll movie since "A Hard Day's Night."

What "The Commitments" has is that rarest of all things; it's got soul. Soul, in fact, is the movie's ruling principle, its Holy Grail and its nirvana. Soul is what the band's all about, says Jimmy (Robert Arkins), the ambitious young music lover who whips the group into shape; and soul is what Dublin's all about. "You're working class, aren't you?" he asks his bass and lead guitarists. "Would be if there was any work," comes the answer. "The Irish are the blacks of Europe," he tells them, "and the Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and the Northsiders are the blacks of Dublin. So say it loud, 'I'm black and I'm proud.' "

The band members join Jimmy in his soul quest even though they're not quite sure what he's talking about. Jimmy is a born promoter, a huckster with the passion of an evangelist. The kids, who are either on the dole or work as meatpackers or bus conductors or blacksmiths, are skeptical at first, but they like it when Jimmy says that soul is all about sex. Their confusion resurfaces when he shows them a tape of James Brown and says, "That's what you have to measure up to, lads."

"The Commitments" is an ensemble piece with Jimmy at its center. He starts by taking out an ad in the local paper, looking for the right mix of musical personalities; all shapes, sizes and denominations apply, though most don't make it past the front door. "What are your influences?" he asks a skinhead in a leather jacket. "Barry Manilow," the skinhead answers. Slam. A young woman with a velvet hat says "Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez ..." Slam. A third girl says, "Sinead ..." Slam.

Parker gives this audition sequence a whiplash comic pace that is right on the money. The film's script -- which Roddy Doyle adapted from his novel with Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais -- is beautifully structured and tight as a drumhead. This is a deadly funny movie; nearly every scene is broken off with a punch line. But Parker's sense of comedy is organic; he never lets the jokes elbow the characters, or the music, out of the spotlight.

Parker keeps all the film's elements in balance. Every nuance is on the beat. The cast of players is large, but each character vividly emerges as a distinct personality. All films in this genre have a predictable dramatic curve: The band comes together, then after a few awkward early gigs, miraculously finds its groove and soars headlong into fame and fortune. Parker and collaborators have avoided all these cliches; there's nothing predictable about the band's progress. Pushed along by Jimmy and Joey "The Lips" Fagan, a veteran horn player who serves as the group's spiritual wellspring -- God told him to join the band -- the Commitments develop slowly, discovering themselves a little at a time.

This gradual maturation gives us a chance to get inside the characters, the dynamics of the group, and, most of all, the music. The movie couldn't be as great as it is if it weren't made by passionate musical connoisseurs. When the band starts to click, we feel like we know why; we know what's been missing, and feel their little epiphanies, both viscerally and intellectually. When they hit their groove, we're right in step with them.

We're also right in sync with the tensions that threaten to blow the group sky high. Deco (Andrew Strong), the band's lead singer, is the source of most of the problems. Everyone admits that he's blessed with a rare set of lungs (his voice is a combination of Van Morrison and Joe Cocker), but he's also a brutish pig. Offstage, he lasciviously taunts the backup singers, swaggers and belches. And his onstage behavior isn't much better. One drummer quits because he knows it's going to come to violence ("And I'm on probation," he says); and his replacement finally smashes the singer over the head with a trash can.

Deco isn't the only problem. The other force tearing the group apart is, as Jimmy puts it, "that old demon ... sex." The main culprit here is Joey the Lips, who in quick succession takes each of the three backup singers to bed, creating dissension in the female ranks. The women aren't happy, either, that Jimmy doesn't pay much attention to them. When Natalie (Maria Doyle) tries to seduce him, he puts her off. "What if you weren't the manager?" she asks. "But I am the manager, Natalie," he snaps back, walking off alone into the night.

Most of the actors are novices, and there's not a slouch among them; they take to the screen with uncanny ease, both individually and as members of an ensemble. Parker has to get a lot of the credit for this, as he does for giving us the dilapidated atmosphere of the movie's setting. Like the American music that captured the spirit of the black slums, the movie captures the texture of Dublin's decaying, rough-and-tumble working-class culture. But the social conditions aren't shoved into the foreground; they give the movie its backbeat, its roots.

Then there's the sheer pleasure of watching the group perform. Most music movies give us small samples of the band's performances, but in this one the music provides the heartbeat. Parker knows how to showcase the band in its onstage appearances. The bottom line, though, is the music itself, and during numbers like "Take Me to the River" or "Dark End of the Street" or "Try a Little Tenderness," a feeling of sheer, irresistible delight moves through you. "The Commitments" will transport you, carry you off. No other movie this year can touch it.

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