It’s strange how popular films can fade from culture after a while.
Last year I had a yen to review The engagements, the late Alan Parker’s 1991 film about the brief rise and even faster fall of a working-class soul group in Dublin, Ireland.
It shouldn’t have been a big request; The engagements was a huge hit (well, everywhere outside the US) on release, grossing a lot of money, spawning two soundtrack albums and a brief soul revival and setting the mold for Irish populist comedies and British people on the big screen for years to come (Brewed, The full Monty, and so on, until Sing the street). The fictional band – or a variation of it – is still on tour. There was the inevitable musical on stage.
But no sign of the movie – it was missing from streaming services, not available for digital purchase, and the disc was sold out. Disappointed hopes, I spent a year in mourning just for The engagements to see, without any ad, on SBS On Demand. And I’m here to tell you, brothers and sisters, that he hasn’t lost anything of his heart, soul, and guts.
It’s a simple story. Based on Roddy Doyle’s debut novel from 1987 and set in the northern neighborhoods of Dublin, The engagements focuses on future music promoter Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins), who has the idea of forming a soul band.
Directing auditions in the terraced family home, much to the dismay of his grumpy and obsessed father Elvis (a perfect Colm Meaney), he recruits a motley ensemble, including the jobbing musos Outspan (Glen Hansard of The Frames) and Derek (Kenneth McCluskey), pretentious saxophonist Dean (Félim Gormley), pugnacious drummer Billy (Dick Massey), medical student pianist Steven (Michael Aherne) and obnoxious but incredibly talented singer, Deco (Andrew Strong, only 16 years old) at the time). Rounding out the group, veteran trumpeter Joey “The Lips” Fagan (Johnny Murphy), who claims God sent him and whose accounts of a career with the greats are suspect, and backing vocalists Imelda (Angeline Ball) , Natalie (Maria Doyle) and Bernie (Bronagh Gallagher) – the Commitmentettes.
From there, Jimmy puts the group in shape, navigating interpersonal dramas, rapidly growing egos, and a tangled web of sexual jealousies to forge a mighty, powerful soul group – “the hardest working group in the world.” Alas, infighting triumphs over talent and after their finest concert to date, The Commitments is set ablaze in spectacular fashion.
Which might be a pessimistic ending, to be fair, but it’s the journey, not the destination. here’s why The engagements deserves to be revisited.
It’s ‘Ride, Sally, ride’, not ‘Roid, Sally, roid’
Well, on the one hand, the music is awesome. There is an underlying mercenary reason The engagementsquick travel from page to screen – the producers knew the soundtrack would be a banger, filled with covers of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin. The band in the film is the band from the soundtrack, with Parker recording them live on set to maximize the feeling of authenticity. Sure they’re awful at first, but we travel with them as they improve, until their triumphant performance of “Mustang Sally” at their last gig – in fact the only time we let’s hear an entire song throughout the movie.
It could be argued that an all-white Irish band playing almost exclusively black songs (although Van Morrison takes a look at it) is an act of cultural appropriation, but the film cleverly puts a hat on that notion. Asked by one of the members of the group to know if it was a bad choice, Jimmy offers this clumsy but sincere reply: “The Irish are the blacks of Europe. The Dubliners are the Blacks of Ireland. The Northside Dubliners are the Blacks of Dublin. So say it once and say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.
It was cranky 30 years ago, and maybe even more so today, but it’s also Jimmy trying to articulate something thousands of miles from the idea of intersectionality – even though he wouldn’t know the word if you spell it for him. Much is made of the act of will required to wrap Irish voices around the lyrics in black, and the arduous task of the group’s first sheepish efforts to their subsequent excellence, but at the grassroots The engagements is about the common experiences and emotions that unite us.
“Better to be an unemployed musician than an unemployed pipefitter!
It is also the working class like any exit, something that still resonates today – perhaps even more so in the current financial climate. Hell, the characters of The engagements aren’t working class, they don’t work – saxophonist Dean expresses his feelings about being an unemployed musician to Jimmy when they meet in the unemployed queue.
Director Parker, remembered to be English rather than Irish, demonstrates an incredible sense of place and culture in The engagements, capturing street scenes of crowded markets, swinging clotheslines, and packs of stray children with a trained eye for specificity. And even The engagements it is not a funeral song by Ken Loach; while recognizing the endemic poverty of his setting, he captures a certain sad humor without ever falling into sentimentality. The circumstances are, on the whole, appalling, but never miserable – there is always music.
And here so many music in The engagements, even outside the group itself. We see a busker in the markets where we meet Jimmy. There is the terrible alliance of Outspan and Derek, And And And. Mr. Rabbitte’s obsession with Elvis is not just a character quirk, but a beautiful and fun example of how art speaks to everyone. The audition sequence, an extremely funny affair where Jimmy suffers through an endless stream of desperate hopes, nonetheless shows just how much music is a part of the characters’ lives and the Dublin of the film.
That’s why, despite everything the film band crashes and burns, The engagements as a movie it’s still an optimistic affair – the band, the music, was not a way out of their life, but an integral, albeit elevated, part of it. The engagements is great because it reminds us that music, and indeed all art, is not a distant province, the ivory tower of the great and the gifted; at best, it belongs to the people and to the streets.
The engagements is now airing on SBS On Demand.