© 2019 by M. Keith Booker

Roddy Doyle’s 1987 novel The Commitments was a huge success that launched its author on a major literary career, partly because of its hip, postmodern use of popular culture as its literary material. But the book also captures the texture of life in a working-class Dublin that was fighting for its economic survival in the years before the Irish economic boom of the 1990s made Ireland one of the world’s wealthiest nations. The novel features an impoverished Dublin that still bears the stamp of centuries of British colonial domination. Its characters are young Irish men and women who have few career opportunities and who are still struggling to find a sense of their own cultural identity, even after more than half a century of independence from British rule. Unfortunately, in The Commitments, the main source of that “independent” identity is music imported from America, which raises the question of just how independent and authentically Irish this identity might be.

Doyle’s novel was a big success on its own terms, ultimately becoming the first volume in Doyle’s “Barrytown Trilogy” of novels, after it was joined by The Snapper (1990), and The Van (1991). Meanwhile, Doyle would return to this milieu in 2013 with a fourth entry, The Guts, which is a sequel to The Commitments but set a quarter of a century later.Meanwhile, given the central emphasis on music in The Commitments, it was also a novel that seemed custom-designed for a film adaptation, so that the music could actually be heard. Indeed, the film contains dozens of songs (mostly American soul music), including those performed by the eponymous band.The result was a rousing success, though the film received a more positive response in Ireland and Britain than in the United States. It won the BAFTA awards for Best Film, Best Direction, and Best Adapted Screenplay,[1] for example, while in the U.S. it scored a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture—Comedy or Musical and an Oscar nomination for Best Film Editing, but won neither. The film has by now become something of a cult favorite and was listed in the 1999 BFI poll of top British films as the 38th best British film of all time. In Ireland, the film was so admired that images of four of the characters from the film appeared on an Irish postage stamp in 1996.The film adaptation is largely true to the novel; most changes seem to have been made to make some aspects of the film relate better to an American audience.

The film version of The Commitments begins with a series of scenes that establish the look and feel of the setting in the working-class neighborhoods on the northside of late 1980s Dublin. The areas of the cities we see here look decidedly run-down and impoverished: very Third World. (In one scene, when Jimmy goes to collect his unemployment check and is chided for still not having a job, he simply responds, “We’re a Third World country. What can you do?”) In the first scene, young hustler Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) walks through a street market, hoping to sell a few items. The seedy-looking wares of the market are supplemented by the musical performances of buskers—performing a combination of Irish folk songs and American pop songs. The scene then shifts to a wedding party, where an awful cover band is also performing American pop music. Within the first few minutes of the film, then, it has already been established that the film will take place in working-class Dublin (or it would be, if there was any work, as one character puts it) and that American music will be central to the action.

That action involves the efforts of the members of the wedding party cover band to become a success—toward which they convince the streetwise Jimmy to become their manager. In return, Jimmy insists that the band reconstitute its membership, change its name, and (perhaps most important) change its musical style. Their music, he insists, should reflect their working-class identities; it should speak the authentic language of the streets they come from. It should be real and visceral; it should be about “struggle and sex,” not “mushy, shite love songs.” It should, in short, be “Dublin soul” music. The problem with this plan is that Jimmy’s conception of “Dublin soul” turns out to be exactly the same as the American soul music of the kind produced by Detroit’s famed Motown record company. For Jimmy, it would seem that the key to musical authenticity is to find the right predecessor to copy.

When Jimmy posts an ad for new band members, there follows a hilarious string of candidates who come to his door to audition, though the auditions actually begin with Jimmy’s own father (played by Colm Meaney, who at the time was also playing engineer Miles O’Brien on Star Trek: The Next Generation). As soon as he learns that Jimmy is seeking new band members, he launches into his rendition of Elvis Presley’s 1961 hit “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Jimmy cuts him off, pointing out that “Elvis is not soul,” but Mr. Rabbitte simply responds that “Elvis is God.” Jimmy still isn’t interested, though it isn’t because of his dad’s lack of originality. After all, Jimmy’s central question to all of the ragtag stream of musicians who come to him to audition is “Who are your influences?” In many cases the answer is obvious, just by looking, but the group as a whole are nicely representative of the musical texture of late-1980s Dublin. Irish performers U2 and Sinead O’Connor are among these influences, for example, and the candidates also include an Irish fiddler and an uilleann piper.[2] Some of those who audition are influenced by British performers like Boy George, but the prevailing musical influences are American, ranging from folk singers such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to generic hard rockers.

One Zydeco band performs the song “Elvis was a Cajun” in its audition, causing Mr. Rabbitte to respond with horror: “That’s fuckin’ blasphemy!” he declares, continuing his earlier “Elvis Is God” theme. Importantly, the Rabbitte home is decorated with a large color portrait of Pope John Paul II, indicating the family’s Catholic loyalties. In such a household, one might think the Pope would be exceeded in reverence paid only by God himself. Indeed, above the pope’s portrait, hangs another—a portrait of Elvis Presley, Mr. Rabbitte’s true God. The literary referent here, as I point out in my essay “Late Capitalism Comes to Dublin,” would seem to be that moment in the opening chapter of Ulysses in which Stephen Dedalus declares that he, as an Irishman, is the servant of two masters, one British and one Italian, referring to the British Empire and the Catholic Church (27). Given that Elvis was widely referred to as “The King” during his heyday, the connection seems clear: Ireland still has two masters, but now the Catholic Church is joined by American popular culture. The Dubliners of the film seem to have finally escaped British political and cultural domination only to find itself firmly in the grip of American cultural and economic power.

One could indeed read The Commitments as an exploration of the cultural domination of Ireland by America, though neither the film nor the novel really comments on this topic directly, instead merely portraying the American-dominated fabric of contemporary Irish culture and leaving it to readers and audiences to draw their own conclusions about what this means. We might, however, note that this topic comes up again and again in Doyle’s fiction, as I have pointed out:

“All of Doyle’s fictions point in one way or another to the importance of American popular culture in modern Dublin. The characters of The Snapper spend a great deal of their leisure time watching television programming that is dominated by American products like MTV; the major action of The Van involves the efforts of Jimmy, Sr., and his friend Bimbo to start up their own fast food business, hoping to compete directly with existing fish-and-chip shops, but also hoping to outstrip American fast-food chains such as McDonald’s” (“Late Capitalism Comes to Dublin 33).

This ongoing emphasis suggests that Doyle, at least, takes this topic very seriously. However, as I go on to point out in that essay, what is really at stake here is not the domination of Ireland by American culture but the domination of America and Ireland both by the same multinational late capitalist culture.[3]

The Commitment-ettes.

In any case, this motif, introduced early in the film, already leads us to expect that things are not going to turn out well for the band. Indeed, the overall plot arc of the film is very much like a story from Dubliners, in which characters are constantly seeking creative ways out of the morass of life in Dublin, only to fail in the end. Still, the band does have its moments in the film. The auditions don’t yield much (except laughs for viewers of the film), but, surprisingly enough, Jimmy actually manages to round up a talented group of singers and musicians on his own, partly by assuring them that, once they are in a band, they will be immensely popular with women, who will be “throwin’ their knickers on the stage.” Indeed, Jimmy continually emphasizes the centrality of sex to their music. He even recruits three backup girl singers to add sex appeal, highlighted by local sex symbol Imelda Quirke (Angeline Ball), who turns out to be a fine singer, but who was clearly recruited to the band primarily for her sex appeal. Other members of the “Commitment-ettes” include Natalie Murphy (Maria Doyle, herself an accomplished professional singer) and Bernie McGloughlin (Bronagh Gallagher).

Other key members of the band include guitarist Outspan Foster (Glen Hansard) and bassist Derek Scully (Ken McCluskey) from the original band, joined by saxophonist Dean Fay (Félim Gormley), pianist Steven Clifford (Michael Aherne), and drummer Billy Mooney (Dick Massey). The band also manages to sign up trumpet player Joey “The Lips” Fagan (Johnny Murphy), who purports to have considerable experience in the music business, having supposedly jammed with blues legend B. B. King, not to mention such soulful greats as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Martha Reeves, Sam Cooke, Joe Tex, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding. He even claims to have recorded the trumpet part on the 1967 classic “All You Need Is Love,” by the Beatles, one of the few non-soul acts of which Jimmy appears to approve. Jimmy is a bit skeptical of these credentials (especially after Joey claims to have been sent by God—via a Baptist minister in Harlem—to play with the band), but the man can play, and his presence definitely adds zest to the band’s music. But the real star of the band is burly lead singer Deco Cuffe (Andrew Strong[4]), who can belt out Motown soul with the best of them, though his hard drinking and unruly behavior often cause problems.

To give the band an idea of the kind of showmanship he’s going for, Jimmy shows them  a tape of a performance by American singer James Brown, the legendary “Godfather of Soul.” The band members seem largely unfamiliar with Brown’s work—after all, he had been at the peak of his popularity from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, when they were still children. Watching the tape, Dean wonders if their band might be “a little white” to perform that kind of music with that kind of flair. “Do you not get it, lads?” responds Jimmy, enthusiastically. “The Irish are the blacks of Europe, and Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin.”[5] “So,” he concludes, quoting a well-known 1968 song by James Brown, “say it once, say it loud. I’m black, and I’m proud.”

Jimmy here might be a little too caught up in his admiration for African American culture, but he actually makes a rather astute point about the historical marginalization of Ireland with respect to the rest of Europe and about the tendency of many in Ireland to look down on Dubliners as somehow less authentically Irish than those who live on the rest of the island. And, of course, the working-class northside of Dublin is definitely less affluent than the southside. Jimmy also makes an excellent point about the racial status of the Irish. After all, L. Perry Curtis has convincingly demonstrated that many of the stereotypes that underlie modern racism (including those often applied to African Americans) were originally developed as part of a British Victorian discourse about Ireland that was designed to emphasize the racial superiority of the British to the Irish. Similarly, Theodor Allen, in The Invention of the White Race, traces the close historical parallels between the treatment of African Americans in the U.S. and the British figuration of the Irish as racial inferiors. Among other things, Allen shows that Irish immigrants in America, regarded as white and thus freed of the stigma of racial inferiority that had suffered under British rule, have historically tended to reinforce their own whiteness by adopting racist attitudes toward African Americans. The Irish have thus seen both sides of the racial divide, demonstrating just how artificial and socially constructed that divide really is.

One could argue, of course, that the radical changes in the Irish economy since the making of The Commitments might render Jimmy’s characterization of northside Dubliners as the ultimate underclass inappropriate, while also rendering its portrayal of impoverished conditions in Dublin as anachronistic and irrelevant. But one could also argue just the opposite: that it is important to remember how recently Ireland was a poor and economically backward country and how quickly that all changed, thus making sure that the Irish continue to move in the right direction, while also providing hope to other depressed areas that they might be able to learn something from the Irish example and reverse their own misfortunes.

In any case, lack of funds both propels many of the band’s members to seek a career in music and makes an important contribution to the band’s ultimate undoing as the members start to get restless when the anticipated financial rewards do not materialize. Other sources of dissension arise as well, including the fact that everyone hates Deco and the fact that Joey sleeps, one by one, with all of the backup singers. Thus, both the camaraderie and the sexual energies that are supposed to drive the band turn out to be sources of turmoil.

In one of the film’s most amusing ongoing gags, Jimmy (clearly bitten by the fame bug) conducts mock interviews with himself, as if in preparation for the day when real interviewers will want to talk with him. Amusing or not, this motif also calls into question Jimmy’s stated political objectives, and one wonders about the depth of his commitment to seeing the band become an authentic voice of working-class cultural expression. While emphasizing the sexual energies of soul music, he also emphasizes its working-class energies. “Soul is the rhythm of sex,” he says, “and it’s the rhythm of the factory, too. The working man’s rhythm. Sex in the factory.” One wonders, though, whether he is just spouting slogans here. He seems to have no clearly defined political agenda and mainly simply wants to be famous (and perhaps rich), suggesting that the ideology of capitalism he claims to oppose is much more difficult to surmount than he might have imagined.

Adopting (at Joey’s suggestion) the name “The Commitments,” to emphasize the supposed political engagement of their music, the band undertakes a series of local engagements, with preparation that seems to consist more of listening to American soul music than of actual rehearsal. As Jimmy tells Deco, he should study James Brown for the growls, Otis Redding for the moans, Smokey Robinson for the whines, and Aretha Franklin for “the whole lot put together.”[6] Despite a few mishaps (and a predictable amount of mayhem), the main outcome of these engagements is that the band is actually quite good—almost shockingly good, given the way it was constituted. Indeed, it is clearly the quality and seeming authenticity of these performances that have made The Commitments such an enduring film with such a devoted core following of fans. The band (with help from some additional musicians) ultimately released two successful soundtrack albums (selling over ten million copies worldwide), including recordings of a number of songs that are not even on the film’s actual soundtrack. A Commitments tribute band (called “The Stars from The Commitments”) featuring Mooney and McCluskey has toured and performed widely, even appearing with such soul legends as B. B. King, James Brown, and Wilson Pickett, all of whom figure in the film.[7] In 2010 Strong and Arkins, along with several other cast members, joined that band for a reunion tour that helped raise money for the Irish Cancer Society.

Within the film, though, things become particularly acrimonious at the band’s last performance, as the band members literally come to blows, partly because of the disappointment that occurs after Joey supposedly arranges for Wilson Pickett to attend the performance, but then Pickett doesn’t show. Joey tries to put a philosophical spin on the band’s failure, arguing that a rise to stardom would have been too predictable, whereas their ultimate demise is more poetic. At least, he argues, the experience has raised the horizons of the band members and led them to strive for more in life rather than simply accepting their conditions as hopeless. Jimmy rejects this utopian vision of their experience and walks away, believing Joey to be a fraud. Then, as the film draws to a close, a car bearing Wilson Pickett arrives at the club, having been delayed. Apparently, Joey was for real. Jimmy walks into the night, contemplating all that has happened. Then, in the final scenes, Jimmy again interviews himself, revealing what happened to the band members after the band broke up, including his announcement of proud news from Joey’s mother that he has sent her a postcard from America revealing he is now touring with Joe Tex. However, as Jimmy points out, Joe Tex died in 1982, leaving Joey’s exact stature in the music business still a bit uncertain.

Jimmy then ends his final interview by asking himself what he has learned from his experience with The Commitments. He responds merely by quoting lines from the 1967 megahit “Whiter Shade of Pale,” by the British rock group Procol Harum (part of which Jimmy and Steven had sung together earlier in the film). It’s an odd choice for an anthem, though, given Jimmy’s earlier emphasis on blackness, and the lines he quotes don’t make a great deal of sense in context. Indeed, he immediately asks himself what the lines mean here. “I’m fucked if I know,” he replies to himself, ending the film on an appropriately ironic, open-ended note that again recalls the endings of most of the stories in Dubliners.[8]


[1] The screenplay was drafted by Doyle himself, then reworked by experienced screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais; all three received screenwriter credits for the film.

[2] Uilleann pipes are the Irish version of the better-known Scottish bagpipe.

[3] It should be noted, though, that Doyle’s play Brownbread (1987) features a military invasion of Ireland by the U.S., reminding us that, however multinational capitalism might be, it is still backed by the full force of the American military.

[4] Strong was still only seventeen when The Commitments premiered, though he looks somewhat older in the film. Described in People magazine as a cross between Joe Cocker and Meatloaf, he would go on to have a moderately successful solo career of his own (Podolsky). This characterization is an interesting one, though Strong is definitely closer to Cocker than to Meatloaf.

[5] This line is repeated almost verbatim from the novel, except there Jimmy uses the problematic word “niggers,” instead of “blacks” (Doyle 8–9).

[6] This list is lifted directly from the novel, except there it is Marvin Gaye who is to be studied for the whole lot, rather than Franklin (31).

[7] As a measure of the musical talent that Parker was able to assemble for the film, star Robert Arkins, who does not have a singing part in the film, delivers a rousing rendition of the 1965 soul classic “Treat Her Right” (originally recorded by Roy Head and the Traits) during the end credits of the film.

[8] Doyle is not, however, among the Irish writers who trace their lineage proudly back to Joyce. In 2004 (100 years after the setting of the action of Ulysses), Doyle expressed admiration for Dubliners, but declared that Joyce’s best-known work, Ulysses, is “overlong, overrated, and unmoving” and that it “could have done with a good editor” (Chrisafis). Doyle was speaking, by the way, at a celebration in honor of Joyce’s birthday, leading up to an extensive celebration In Dublin of the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday.