Irresistible music, vivid performances drive 'The Commitments'

September 13, 1991|By Stephen Wigler

"Father, when I sing hymns in the choir, all I can think of is 'When a Man Loves a Woman' by Marvin Gaye," a young musician tells his priest as he makes his confession.

"That's Percy Sledge," says the voice on the other side of the curtain.

"What?" asks the young man.

"Percy Sledge!" comes the second and louder reply.

This is soul music-crazed Dublin as Alan Parker imagines it in "The Commitments," the director's best film since "Fame," his most interesting since "Shoot the Moon," and perhaps the most enjoyable film on screens anywhere right now.

This movie, adapted beautifully from Roddy Doyle's street-sharp novel of the same name, tells what happens when two out-of-work musicians from Dublin's depressed Northside ask Jimmy Rabbitte to help them form a band. Rabbitte, a hawk-faced young man with sensitive eyes, agrees -- on one condition: The band must play nothing but soul.

"Aren't we a little white?" one of the boys asks. "The Irish are the blacks of Europe, Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland and Northsiders are the blacks of Dublin," Jimmy tells them. "Say 'I'm black and I'm proud!' "

Parker is such a slick filmmaker that one sometimes forgets what a good one he is. In Doyle's atmospheric novel there is almost no narrative -- just dialogue. Parker's often hilarious movie does the novel one better -- it has the Joycean music of the beautiful and almost undecipherable way the Irish speak English, plus the exuberant music the Commitments -- which is what the band decides to call itself -- sing.

Ever since he made "Bugsy Malone" more than 15 years ago, Parker has been using music to tell stories. No one does it better, and anyone who criticizes "The Commitments" because it resembles a music video is missing the point.

For one thing, Parker's film style began evolving in this direction long before music videos. For another, the bite-sized episodes of "The Commitments" are beautifully organized into a coherent narrative that makes you care about its characters.

The performances by the mostly non-professional cast -- particularly those by Robert Arkins (Rabbitte) and Johnny Murphy (as Joey "The Lips" Fagan, a late-40ish trumpet player, who may or may not have played with Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding) -- are often impressive musically and always persuasive dramatically.

It's fashionable to dump on Parker nowadays -- particularly after "Mississippi Burning" and "Come See the Paradise" -- because his movies stress entertainment rather than historical truthfulness.

There are also those who say that he trivializes his subject here by alluding to working-class themes without dealing thoroughly with them. And there are those who say that the performances of the music in "The Commitments" are "too white."

You can read such criticisms to be morally enlightened or you can see "The Commitments" to be entertained. All this reviewer can tell you is that -- try hard as he did to dislike it -- he couldn't keep from bouncing his feet.

'The Commitments'

Starring Robert Arkins, Angeline Ball, Andrew Strong and Johnny Murphy.

Directed by Alan Parker.

Released by 20th Century Fox.

Rated R.

***

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