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AWSoP in 'The Commitments'

Jonas Söderström

AWSoP plays a prominent rôle in the 1991 hit film The Commitments, about the kids from Barrytown, Dublin, who form an Irish soul group, which falls apart on the threshold of stardom.

The AWSoP appearance is somewhat surprising. Partly because AWSoP has rather little relation to the James Brown / funk soul music that is the main ingredient of the film. Another reason is that there is no mention of AWSoP whatsoever in the 1988 novel by Roddy Doyle, which the film is based on.

For various reasons – technical, commercial – most novels change considerably when transformed into films. For example, what is told in a book, has to be shown in a movie.

But Commitments the movie is extraordinarily close to Commitments the novel. There are some differences – but all in all, it's very close. One reason is probably that the book really reads like a movie script. There is a lot of dialogue, and many of the lines in the film are taken word for word from the book. [More about AWSoP and The Commitments]

So why then has AWSoP been inserted? It's really rather mysterious.

The first time, AWSoP is played on the church organ by the bands keyboard player, Stephen Clifford (called James Clifford in the book). Jimmy Rabbitte (the 'manager' of the band and the story's main character) and Stephen are in church, waiting for Father Molloy to tell them if they've got their first gig.

Stephen plays, Jimmy says 'Great song!'. (This is special, because Jimmy throughout the movie regularly declares all other kinds of music as 'shite'.)

Stephen starts to sing 'We skipped the light fantastic...' and Jimmy corrects him: 'We skipped the light fandango'. They sing on, together. At 'sixteen vestal virgins' they say 'What does that mean?' Then father Molloy walks down the isle, surprises them by saying something like 'I don't know either, but it's a great song'.

Why this insertion, then? I had some theories.

In the novel, James / Stephen clearly lacks some flesh and blood. He is introduced only in passing, while we get to know a lot more about how the other kids are recruited to the band. This scene adds a little personality to him; without it his character would be a bit pale.

James / Stephen is also already a skilled musician ('There was nothing you could teach James Clifford about playing the piano'), while the other kids are just beginning to learn to play their instruments. Maybe AWSoP serves as a way to show us that he already is a brilliant keyboard player:-)

On the other hand, this is not James's / Stephen's first appearance. We've already met him, seen him play – so I don't know the presentation motif-theory holds.

This scene could be said to give the band a better connection to Father Molloy, who walks in on James / Stephen and Jimmy while they're singing. He is very benevolent and tells them they can have their first gig at the community centre.

In the novel James has in fact been kicked out of church, for playing – not AWSoP – but The Chicken Song just before mass. Still, the reverend gives them a chance to play at the community centre. The film maybe version makes the plot 'tighter'.

Or maybe it's just for a laugh? When the priest walks in on Jimmy and Stephen his appearance is black and sombre, against the direct light. We're expecting him to rebuke them. When he unexpectedly likes the piece too, we laugh in relief.

Even more interesting is, however, the re-appearance of AWSoP at the end of the movie. The band has broken up. Jimmy talks to himself while having a bath. He is pretending to be talking to a reporter about the fate of the band, when he suddenly quotes a few lines from AWSoP.

'- So looking back, what did you learn from the time with the Commitments, Jimmy? – That's a tricky question, Terry. But as I always say: We skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels across the floor. I was feeling kind of seasick, but the crowd called out for more (spoken in a manner-of-fact-type voice)

- That's very profound, Jimmy. What does it mean?

(big grin) – I'm fucked if I know, Terry!'

Again, this is not in the novel; and the ending is the only part where the film differs significantly from the book. In the book, after the break-up of the band, Jimmy and a couple of the band-mates dismisses soul, gets very excited over a Byrds record and quickly form a new group, playing 'country-punk'.

To me, the film ending makes more sense. The band members are scattered in different directions, and Jimmy briefly informs us about their musical whereabouts. But he hasn't joined anyone of them. Why should he? He has been betrayed by all of the others. Despite all his work, the band falls apart for childish and egoistic reasons. Jimmy is left on his own.

This is much more credible. So what about AWSoP? Well, one of the more common interpretations of the text is that it is about betrayal.

Maybe AWSoP provides an intelligent rounding off of the whole story? Or is it just a coincidence, a funny twist at the end?

Writing a script has a lot of inner logic to it, not always visible to the movie-goer; and there is very little place for passing fancies or whims. You have to be economic; all things in the film should be there for a reason. (Chekhov said about writing plays: if there is a rifle on the wall in the first act, it should be fired before the third act ends).

But after seeing the film again the other night, I question my own theories. Maybe it is just the guerrilla tactics that Joey the Lips talks about: 'We are the guerrillas of soul. We do not announce our gigs. We hit and then we sink back into the night.' Guerrilla tactics by some great, secret PH fan, after all?

And who could be responsible then? I don't know – but the script is co-written by Roddy Doyle, Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais.

Draw your own conclusions.

Many thanks, Jonas Söderström

Joan May points out: 'I think the director of the film – Alan Parker? – also directed Evita – with Gary B in a bit part (and I do mean bit!) ... could Parker be a PH fan?

One intriguing quote from the film is the bloke playing the church organ saying <approx – 'Wish I could borrow one of these from me granny.' That seems really off the wall, until one remembers that Matthew Fisher borrowed the $$ from his Granny to buy his late lamented :.-( Hammond M102, on which he created all his AWSoP magic.

More about A Whiter Shade of Pale AWSoP in the movies
More about AWSoP and The Commitments  

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