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The real Irish soul singers

BY BLAKE GOBLE
Daily Arts Writer
Published March 6, 2008

What's your favorite Irish musical act? The Frames? U2? "Once's" Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová? How about the Commitments? Wait, you don't know the Commitments? They're only the finest Irish soul cover band to almost play a concert with Wilson Pickett. At least that's what happens in the movie.

So they're not a real band, but "The Commitments" is a 1991 comedy musical from Alan Parker ("Mississippi Burning") that covers the splendid rise and fall of an eager band in poverty-stricken Ireland. Cast with complete unknowns and made for the price of a toy guitar, what this movie lacked in resources it made up for in heart and soul.

Jimmy Rabbitte (musician Robert Arkins) is a carefree young man who tries to assemble the greatest R&B band to emerge from Ireland. Searching high and low, he gathers an eclectic group of young singers and performers. Boasting a vivid and talented cast of musicians, the band is only slightly less crazy than Electric Mayhem.

The lead singer is a 16-year-old alcoholic with lungs like Joe Cocker. The drummer is the band's former bouncer and a headbanger to boot. The group's guitarist (a baby-faced Glen Hansard) and bassist are meat factory dregs who spend more time practicing than they spend chopping steaks. The keyboardist is a church organ player and secret soul lover, and the trombone player claims to have played with every great act of the last century - the Beatles, Elvis and Wilson Pickett included.

The film plays out like an hysterically brief episode of VH1's "Behind the Music." Mocking the conventions of fame stories and the struggles that come with greatness, the film works as a satire as well as a soul workout. The band becomes a huge underground sensation, and performs better and better at every show. But just try and watch the band's ego inflate without laughing. They know how good they are, so why shouldn't they demand private spaces and solos? If you're going to make fun of the music industry and its ill effects, study this movie.

The appeal of "The Commitments" is the flavor and accessibility of the music. It doesn't matter what your genre of choice is because everyone can enjoy this soundtrack. Great covers of "Mustang Sally," "Treat Her Right" and "Destination: Anywhere" are just a few of the perfectly performed tunes, adding to the movie's fantastic atmosphere. Out of the most despotic conditions comes the most pure and sincere music. The saying "even if you have nothing, you still got your soul" never felt more at home than here. It sounds trite, but in the context of this film, it's true.

At the time, "The Commitments" was considered a great find and now it can be considered the pre-cursor to Fox's independent comedy hits like "The Full Monty" and even "Juno." And the film has an infectious spirit. An obscure but light-hearted find, it has since created a strong cult following and a solid-selling soundtrack.

Try not stomping your feet and holding your heart when you hear the band's cover of "Try a Little Tenderness" at the very end. You may just shed a tear, let out a laugh and wonder why the hell these guys never quite made it.