The English director Alan Parker, who passed away last summer at age 76 after a long illness, left behind an impressively diverse array of film projects. His early work includes Bugsy Malone, a gangster comedy starring literal children, and the infamous Turkish prison thriller Midnight Express. Along with his social conscience — which anchored films like Mississippi Burning and Angela’s Ashes — another recurring theme is music. His better-known music projects are The Wall and Evita, both of which involved established acts, but his miracle of a music film is the affable, shaggy dog comedy The Commitments. There have been many movies made about fake bands, but looking back on its 30-year anniversary, few have been this convincing.

Part of the charm is how the film — an adaptation from a Roddy Doyle novel — eschews what was popular at the time of its 1991 release. The group formed by promoter Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) remains committed to soul music. Artists like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett were not at their peak of popularity in the early 1990s, although they never really fell out of fashion, either. If you put on a soul standard, most people with a pulse will ask you to turn up the volume or inquire about who is playing. As if proof of soul’s endurance, 2019’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood opens with the same song: Roy Head’s “Treat Her Right,” a soul standard popularized and performed by, well, seemingly everyone (seriously, the song has been performed over the years by Bruce Springsteen, Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, Bob Dylan and Sammy Davis Jr.).

Early in The Commitments, Jimmy is a singular advocate for music that will never be hip but never falls out of fashion. The film is set in Dublin, a city in the throes of a terrible recession, and Jimmy figures a soul band can partially fill that void. His rationale is not exactly PC to 2021 ears: “The Irish are the blacks of Europe, Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and the North Siders are the blacks of Dublin…so say it loud — I’m black and I’m proud!” Still, that kind of blatant swagger-jacking is what Jimmy needed to recruit musicians who were busy with their lives, and who sometimes actively hated one another. One of the funniest running gags is how the frontman Deco (Andrew Strong) was loathed by everyone in the group and only tolerated for his singular talent.

Not much really happens in The Commitments. There is a slight rise/fall/rise arc common to many music films, although they peak with a series of packed club gigs and not much else. Instead, Parker and his screenwriters use the band as an entry point into the lives of the characters, and indeed the film has countless subplots it delves into. The cumulative effect is a sense of community, or even better yet, a scene: folks drift in and out, couple off or get arrested, and the shared good time proves fleeting. There is insight in this approach, although Parker would be the first to admit that it is not terribly probing or serious. The film’s commitment to fun — and maybe the next pint — cannot allow it.

There are a lot recognizable faces that help the film plod along. Glen Hansard, the guy from the Frames and Once, is the guitarist. Veteran character actor Maria Doyle Kennedy plays one of the backup singers. Colm Meaney plays Jimmy’s father, and has a terrific scene where he spontaneously croons an Elvis standard. All these characters are plausible because, on top of their musical chops, they never take their raw talent too seriously. By the time they finally get together and perform, part of the punchline is that they somehow sound so in-sync with one another. Parker does not depict this with the tropes of a biopic that we find in Walk the Line, and instead treats this development as another quirk of this community. Sometimes the stars align for them, and because the film does not treat that as a huge deal, it accomplishes a sense of cool that eludes its contemporaries.

That sense of cool and spontaneity led to the fake band becoming, well, kind of real. In the wake of the film’s release, the Commitments would perform actual gigs because Strong and the others were just that good. It is an ironic development, since Parker and his collaborators go out of their way to show how these musicians could barely hold it together. That’s the point, really: too much intentionality and the whole thing would fall apart.

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