We’ll put the band back together, do a few gigs, we get some bread. Bang! Five thousand bucks. (Blues Brothers, 1980)
There are lots of movies about music. Most common are the character-driven biopics that follow the same plot (talented but troubled youngster gets into music, gets into drugs and then finds redemption later in life, with variations: Walk the Line, 2005; Ray, 2004). And then there are the tragic-arc narratives that memorialize performers brought down before their time (Selena, 1997; The Doors 1991; Notorious, 2009). We even have nostalgic fantasy pieces (That Thing You Do 1996; Dreamgirls, 2006;, Rockstar 2001), musicals and humor based in and around being in a band or a near a band (Blues Brothers, 1980, This is Spinal Tap, 1984; Wayne’s World 1991; The Rocker, 2008).
But what seems to me to be lacking are movies about the experience of being in a band as an amateur. Think about it: There are dozens if not hundreds of movies about playing high school and college football, basketball, baseball etc., yet there are a precious few films that echo the experience that millions of Americans have (even if briefly) of joining a group of friends (or mere acquaintances) and trying to make something happen with a band.
Now, this is a topic especially close to my heart and (my brother’s) because for almost a decade of my life, several nights a week were dedicated to band practice and performance. (And the hours that weren’t spent in a basement, garage or shitty venue were spent practicing, packing and preparing for said contexts.) The (or a) band was always a part of my narrative and my hopes for the future. Even though I knew at some level that I didn’t have the talent or the ambition required, I always dreamed I would someday make it.
(And then I grew up and did something responsible like going for a PhD in dead languages.)
Ian Faith: Certainly, in the topsy-turvy world of heavy rock, having a good solid piece of wood in your hand is often useful. (This is Spinal tap, 1984)
When we were young and sports-fanatics watched Hoosiers, The Longest Yard or any one of the myriad sports films, those of us with music aspirations watched concert videos, bootleg tapes, documentaries, and dreary films like The Doors. But, when I was in high school, everyone who wanted to be in a band had to have watched This is Spinal Tap (it fucking goes to 11!) and The Commitments.
Based on the 1987 book about lower-middle class and nearly middle-aged Irishmen (and women) clinging to the escape of music by Roddy Doyle, Alan Parker’s (Fame!, 1980) The Commitments was not a roaring success in the theaters but it was a big hit with the people I knew (bandmates, groupies and band wannabes). In retrospect, part of it was probably the Irish brogue (everyone in New England claims to be Irish); part of it was probably the dark, dank colors of the film. But a lot of it was the music and the verisimilitude of the relationships of the people in and around the band.
The central character in the movie is the manager (Robert Arkins) who is really the creative ambition behind the band. Of all irrational things, he wants to create the greatest soul band in the world in Dublin Ireland. The movie proceeds in a rather predictable way—from auditions through practice and performance, the narrative reels on to its inevitable end where character conflicts tear the potential beauty apart.
Performing music is necessarily egotistical and solipsistic. To perform in a band you must somehow figure out how to be assertive and submissive at the same time in the right sequence with others. There is little more invigorating and inspiring than achieving actual harmony in a musical creation—those moments when everyone involves contribute what is needed to create a greater whole seem magical and overwhelming, but they come so frequently in between moments of doubt and rupture.
Part of what (I think) made this movie attractive and feeds its continuing allure is the therapeutic power of its mythology—that greatness is possible and that failure issues not from intrinsic inability but from a external infelicity. The movie dramatizes what is most often the experience of people who are in bands (disappointment, failure) with an honest comedy.
Outspan Foster: There’s a band around called “Free Beer”. Always draws a big crowd.
Derek: I like “A Flock of Budgies”.
Jimmy Rabbitte: We have to be “the” something. All the great sixties bands were “The Somethings”.
Outspan Foster: We could be… The Northsiders.
Derek: Or The Liffy Lads.
Outspan Foster: How about… The Fucking Eejits?
At the same time, what makes the movie work and what kept us going back to it again and again are the sequences where music is created. Although most of us who have been in bands will admit that the egomaniacal thrill of live performance is addictive, you don’t get to that point unless you love the music and the art of creating music to begin with. The musical sequences in the film seem real. When I used to watch it, I always wanted to be in it.
The appeal of the music, for the broad middle-class audience of course, resides in the fact that the soundtrack is comprised of R&B and Soul tracks performed by white people. The songs include cover-band staples like “Mustang Sally”, “Take Me to the River” and “Chain of Fools”. Everyone, even people not in bands, recognizes one of these songs and can feel the energy of a band trying to become more by performing someone else’s music.
In this moment, though, I suspect we can find some reason why movies about making music (at least from an amateur perspective) aren’t as common as sports films. There is a meta-artistic aspect to movies about artists that, I think, translates uncomfortably to the audience. In this case, where the film has actors (who are famous) pretending to be musicians failing to become famous, an audience still witnesses the pretense of someone doing more than they are (which is, simply, passively watching a film). Sports movies are almost always happy or near-happy endings in improbably victories. Musical biopics follow the common courses of redemption or tragedy. These movies (even if weakly) inspire as they entertain. A movie like The Commitments at some level points to the fact that just as the actors and audience imitate reality in watching the movie, so too amateur musicians are imitations of some failed selves.
But who isn’t, right? A final thing that makes The Commitments interesting is that it consciously points to the act of imitation and the problem of identity. One of the crises of faith played out in the film is whether or not Dubliners can really play R&B and Soul when they are neither American nor Black. The famous lines we used to repeat assert essentially that the persona of soul and music is about being dispossessed and marginalized:
“The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once and say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.”
Today, I fear, these lines would be considered politically incorrect even if they still point to some fundamental truth. IF you ever wanted to be in a band or ever wanted to be something more, watch The Commitments. It isn’t a perfect movie. But that might be part of the point.