“Have You Got Soul?”: Love, Music, and Clashing Egos in Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments

Here’s a thought: If Alan Parker hadn’t directed his 1991 film version of The Commitments, chances are good I would never have read Roddy Doyle’s 1987 novel of the same name. That would have been a shame.

When I started the book, though, I knew I was going to have a slight problem. The film version of The Commitments is not only a fine movie, it’s also one of my favorites. So the issue I’d need to work through was two-fold: I had to avoid comparing the book to the movie, and I was going to have to try and “see” Doyle’s characters as he wrote them, not as their on-screen counterparts.

It was difficult at first, but then Doyle’s words worked their magic on me:

Have you got soul? If so, The World’s Hardest Working Band is looking for you. Contact J. Rabbitte, 118, Chestnut Ave., Dublin 21. Rednecks and southsiders need not apply.

With this ad sent into the Hot Press classifieds, Dubliner Jimmy Rabbitte, an aspiring music manager and entrepreneur, sets out with two of his buddies, bass player Derek and guitarist Outspan, to form a new band, The Commitments, aka the Saviors of Soul, aka The Hardest Working Band in the World. Fed up with the popularity of new wave music, Jimmy wants to provide the people of Dublin with something authentic. “All tha’ mushy shite abou’ love an’ fields an’ meetin’ mots in supermarkets and McDonald’s is gone,” he preaches to Derek and Outspan, “ou’ the fuckin’ window. It’s dishonest…it’s bourgeois.”

Through a combination of auditions and word of mouth, the band quickly takes shape, adding Deco, a volatile, egotistical, and polarizing singer who will prove to be Jimmy’s toughest managerial challenge, James, a keyboardist, Billy, a drummer, Dean, a budding sax man, and The Commitmentettes, Natalie, Imelda, and Bernie.

The most fascinating Commitment has to be Joey The Lips Fagan, an experienced horn player who answers Jimmy’s newspaper ad. Not only has Joey apparently played with everyone in the music business–he’s also the God-ordained missionary of soul. At their first meeting, he tells Jimmy:

–The Lord told me to come home. Ed Winchell, a Baptist reverend on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, told me. But the Lord told him to tell me. He said he was watching something on TV about the feuding Brothers in Northern Ireland and the Lord told Reverend Ed that the Irish Brothers had no soul, that they needed some soul. And pretty fucking quick! Ed told me to get back to Ireland and blow some soul into the Irish Brothers. The Brothers wouldn’t be shooting the asses off each other if they had soul. So said Ed. 

The point of this novel isn’t whether The Commitments fulfill their mission, or whether they make it big or not. They can make it, certainly. They’re good enough, and people love them. They have chemistry, talent, and desire. They have Joey, whose years of experience playing soul gives them credibility and wisdom. They have Mickah, a tough, loyal bouncer who also serves as a surrogate drummer. And best of all, they have Jimmy.

The journey is what drives this story, and Doyle devotes a decent amount of space to detailing that process, showing the musicians learning their instruments and parts, with Joey The Lips serving as a guide. In the space of a one-hundred-sixty-five page novel, Doyle pulls off an enormous amount of story. By the time you finish this one, you feel like you’ve lived with these folks. Really lived.

A good story isn’t all The Commitments has in its favor. One of the most remarkable elements here is Doyle’s use of language, particularly in passages of fast-paced, authentic, and hilarious dialogue. While some may be wary of the Dubliner dialect, it takes no time at all before it’s engrossing enough to disappear. It’s also not so difficult as to require a glossary like Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. Besides, the dialect is a large part of why the dialogue works so well.

There’s surprisingly little expository detail in this story. Doyle charges ahead, letting the reader in on the characters’ backstories and key physical attributes through dialogue and character actions. For instance, from the first time we meet him, we know Joey Fagan is older and bald, but as for his other traits, we find them out when Doyle wants us to know. We discover Joey is fat and rundown looking, for instance, from the other members’ incredulous reactions when he becomes romantically involved with each of The Commitmentettes.

In the wrong hands, this kind of writing can be tedious and even come off as self-conscious and amateurish. Think, for instance, of characters in novels describing each other–or even worse, themselves–in awkward dialogue. But Doyle handles it with style, wit, and grace. The action, and more importantly the dialogue–which is actually most of the action of this story–happens so quickly that we only take cursory notice of how it’s being delivered.

Consider this snappy exchange between Jimmy and Joey The Lips Fagan, also at their first meeting:

–What’s your name, pal?

–Joseph Fagan, said the man.

He was bald, too, now that he’d taken his helmet off.

–Joey The Lips Fagan, he said.

–Eh. ——Come again?

–Joey The Lips Fagan.

–An’ I’m Jimmy The Bollix Rabbitte.

–I earned my name for my horn playing, Brother Rabbitte. How did you earn yours?

Jimmy pointed a finger at him.

-Don’t get snotty with me, son.

Elsewhere in the book, the scarcity of dialogue attributions helps to create a convincing impression of simultaneous, overlapping, and disorienting conversations taking place within a group of people who don’t care much for each other. Insults are thrown, often accompanied by punches, and many times it doesn’t matter who is giving or receiving.

One of the most common recommendations I’ve heard regarding The Commitments is that it’s a good novel for musicians to read, and I agree. I can’t read it as someone who’s not a musician, since I’ve been one for three-quarters of my life, but I suspect it’s just as relevant to the non-musician.

In the end, The Commitments isn’t a story about a hardworking band that scrabbles its way to the top of the charts. It’s a story about a moment in time, a moment many of us can understand or perhaps merely wish we could, in which there is absolutely no doubt that success is looming. Whether or not it will actually happen is irrelevant.

Throughout my reading of this book, I was often reminded of Marty Dibergi, the fictional documentarian of This is Spinal Tap, who said “I wanted to capture the… the sights, the sounds… the smells of a hard-working rock band, on the road.”

With The Commitments, Roddy Doyle has done precisely that.