In The Commitments, the coarseness of dialogue and the general messiness of Dublin life is very much a matter of careful scripting and mise en scène.
I have to confess to very mixed feelings about this film. For about the first hour, I was utterly drawn in by its energy, and its abundance of colourful, telling detail. And a pervasive poignancy starts to take shape as well, for The Commitments sets out exploring what Paul Schrader captured so well in Light of Day (1987): the interplay of a depressed world, ordinary lives that are going nowhere, and the impossible, fragile, Utopian hope that playing or listening to music offers.
The soul music of Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin idealises the world for the members of The Commitments; as their manager explains, it "lifts them to another place" – or at least, as one of the band suggests, it feels better to be registered as an unemployed saxophone player than as an unemployed pipe fitter.
But, always suspecting the worst of the director of Angel Heart (1986) as I must, I wonder about the nature of Parker's artistic and emotional investment in this project. Like Ridley Scott and Adrian Lyne, Parker's career in cinema has been single-mindedly devoted to the pursuit of overwhelming, moment-by-moment spectacle, with no opportunity for a quick dramatic frisson or a cheap laugh ever passed up. It's a modern mini-tradition I think of as the cinema of hysteria.
Once The Commitments reaches its plateau of spectacle with the band on a succession of stages, the interesting themes and questions start ebbing away, and all that remains are the cheap shots: the brutal put-downs of every musical style that is not soul (this from the man who made Fame !); the relentlessly sexist treatment of women by the male characters and male camera alike; the endless explosions of interpersonal agro that disappear in a puff of whimsy at film's end.
There are some good things in The Commitments. But it left me dissatisfied and troubled. After all, stirring up spectators with the promise of redemption or transcendence through soul confers a mighty responsibility on a filmmaker. Such precious and precarious emotions need very careful handling.
MORE Parker: The Life of David Gale
© Adrian Martin October 1991