Review: The Commitments

The Commitments by Roddy Doyle


I have a complicated relationship with music.

First and foremost, I am not actually a musical person. True, you can catch me singing at all times, but that’s mostly because my eternal internal monologue involves a mixtape. (Currently in rotation: “Let It Go” and “Happy,” two songs that I heard, felt meh about, and knew I would be in love with in a week.) I took piano lessons for several years, but the main thing I remember about the instrument is my brother, an actual musical-type person, asking me to improvise something without sheet music when I was  about twelve or thirteen. I stared at the keys, which, even a few years into my musical education, remained so alien to me that I couldn’t play without alternating madly between looking at the sheet music and looking at my hands. Eventually, I reached out with a rigid right hand and played a few notes, but it was already clear to my brother and I that I wasn’t a shy young musician bursting to break free through song. I was an angry preteen with a bad haircut who expressed herself through copious meta.

And it’s through that fannish lens that I’ve come to embrace and accept my camp taste in music—the more overproduced and cheesy, the better. (Which is why I like Ke$ha so much; see the Ke$ha-only version of “Timber.”) As the ancient fannish saying goes, it’s not what you love, it’s how you love it, and that’s helped me understand music and sports fans over the past few years.

The Commitments is about that love, in a cozily haphazard way, and not the specific kind of music (although the novel does try to get some comedic mileage out of several Irishmen taking to sixties soul so whole-heartedly). In the late eighties, a pair of young men decide to abandon their budding synthpop band (the name And And! And is too much for them) and take their talents to Jimmy Rabbitte, the one person they know who knows music inside and out. Jimmy appoints himself their manager, introduces them to James Brown, and renames them the Commitments. According to Jimmy, they’ll be the new face of Dublin Soul. Jimmy acquires several new members, from a trio of girls to a wildman vocalist, but the oddest is Joey “The Lips” Fagan, an older man who claims to have played with the greats.

I was worried, a bit, when I picked this up that the novel might mock the band. While it doesn’t touch at all on the rich history of white musicians co-opting or straight up stealing the music of black musicians, it treats everyone pretty calmly. Despite the tensions that run high between the band members, it’s a fun little trifle, because the musicians do have lives outside of their music. They adore performing and take their music seriously, but their love for music is stronger than their loyalty to one group or sound. Watching Declan “Deco” Cuffe practice vocals and dancing is so endearing, because you see how the music is starting to get involved in every part of his life. (His mother begins to worry when he starts tossing out lyrics at breakfast.) Jimmy, in particular, is a born hustler, and when the band inevitably breaks up (in a moment that had me laughing out loud), he simply takes it in stride.

So, ultimately, it’s quite a gentle book, despite the language. People learn how to play guitar, even if they’re in over their heads. The girls treat it as a bit of a lark until they realize that they do adore the music and the attention. The band truly loves Jimmy, even when he’s lecturing and pontificating, because he’s funny and nimble and, more or less, knows what he’s on about, and they’re in awe of Joey Fagan, to the point that the girls make a game out of him that ends up derailing the band.

I’ve heard the term “hang out show” applied to sitcoms, because the stakes are usually pretty low and you’re invested in the characters more than anything else. The Commitments is like that, but the characters are really just sketches, so you’re soaking up the atmosphere instead. And there’s something very pleasant and comforting about watching a group of people come together for the sheer love of a thing, whatever that thing is.

Bottom line: The Commitments is a cozy, haphazard hang out novel about musicians who simply love music. Dear.

I bought this book from an independent bookstore.

6 thoughts on “Review: The Commitments

  1. There IS something pleasant and comforting about people all being together because they like a thing. It’s not the conception I had in my head of Roddy Doyle though! I’ve always assumed his books would be grim, as Irish literature is. Nice to know I was wrong!

  2. Have you seen the film based on the novel? I’ve not read the book but have seen the film, which I really enjoyed – it’s stuffed full of good music, and the actors are mostly unknowns. I think that sense of camaraderie between musicians is actually quite difficult to convey in prose, so if Doyle manages it, that’s quite an achievement.

  3. I actually saw the movie version before I read the book (and you should definitely see it!) and I think I liked it more because I could actually hear the music. When I read music-heavy books I tend to need a soundtrack playing, otherwise I get confused and/or upset. I think it’s part of that whole building-an-atmosphere thing– I can visualize most stuff, but music is tough for me and I need guidelines, I suppose.

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