Singing Soul in Dublin

Light on insight, 'The Commitments' has plenty of sentiment

'DO you like good music?" an old song used to ask. "That sweet soul music!"If you do, you may like Alan Parker's new movie, "The Commitments," because it's all about soul music - sung the way they do it in Ireland, full of African-American twangs from people who may never have met an African-American in their lives. It's an ironic situation, and an amusing one, although I wish the film managed to capitalize on it better. "The Commitments" focuses on a band also called the Commitments, formed in Dublin - where the movie was shot in almost 50 different locations - by a working-class lad named Jimmy Rabitte, who's determined to thrill Ireland with his brand of hard-rocking soul. The group isn't exactly overloaded with musical talent, but the members have a lot of enthusiasm, and they get better as they go along - at least when they aren't feuding, quarreling, and jumping into romantic rivalries. They're a likable bunch, and the movie roots for them as they struggle a little way up the ladder of success, hoping with all their might that some real break will come along - such as getting to play with a real giant of soul, which Joey "The Lips" Fagan, their colorfully named trumpet player, insists he will be able to arrange one of these days. What's most touching and also most troubling about the musicians is their desperate wish to immerse themselves in the spirit of black American music - convinced, as one Commitment puts it, that the Irish are the blacks of Europe, that Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and that the residents of their particular neighborhood are the blacks of Dublin, even though they're physically as white as can be! This sort of reasoning is weak on logic, and it belittles the great challenges faced by real blacks in m any parts of the world. But it shows how committed the Commitments are to soul music and its ethnic roots. Mr. Parker, who directed "The Commitments," is a British filmmaker whose career has wandered all over the cinematic map - from the melodrama of "Midnight Express" and the romance of "Shoot the Moon" to the politically slanted stories of "Mississippi Burning" and "Come See the Paradise," both of which have drawn criticism for treating highly charged material with more sentiment than insight. Parker has treated musical subjects before, in pictures like "Fame" and "Pink Floyd the Wall," and "The Commitment s" makes it clear that he's a rock lover down to his bones, genuinely interested in filling movie theaters with the sounds and sights of an art he truly admires. Still, if you don't respond to '60s soul music as strongly as he does, you might find "The Commitments" thin going as it jumps from song to song without enough interesting events to give the story much additional punch. I love some pop from the '60s, but the songs Parker chooses - and the uneven way the Commitments perform them - often left me cold, as did the acting much of the time. "The Commitments" is full of energy and high spirits. But it takes more than that to make a first-rate soul movie.

"The Commitments" is rated * for language.

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