Patti Cake$ is out now in many theaters. Get your tickets here!
“The success of the band was irrelevant. You raised their expectations of life, you lifted their horizons. Sure we could have been famous and made albums and stuff, but that would have been predictable. This way, it’s poetry”--Joey “The Lips” Fagan (Johnny Murphy), The Commitments
There’s a 2013 article from The Onion titled “Find the Thing You’re the Most Passionate About, then do it on Nights and Weekends for the Rest of Your Life,” that’s stuck with me ever since it first came out. Like most Onion pieces, it’s absurd, but gets at a deeper truth: the thing we feel the strongest call to do in our lives is usually not the thing that pays our bills. We’ve all got side hustles. Maybe yours is woodworking. Maybe it’s writing essays about movies. Maybe it’s being in a band. The point is, you do these things because you love them, not necessarily because you’re guaranteed any measure of success.
At first glance, The Commitments, a 1991 movie about an Irish soul band, may seem like an odd pairing with the new film Patti Cake$, about an aspiring female rapper in New Jersey. But the movies are joined by two common factors: one is that they’re both about white people performing music created by black people. The second is that they’re both about the joy of the side hustle, and the importance of doing something simply for the love of it.
It’s important to note that the rap in Patti Cake$ and the soul music in The Commitments aren’t about cultural appropriation (though the former film does raise a couple of questions on that score.) In each case, they’re about the ability of art to speak to common feelings across cultural and racial barriers. Both rap and soul are raw and emotional genres. Those qualities are embraced by the protagonists in both films, who are living lives full of the kind of hardship, disappointment and struggle that power the music they love.
The Commitments depicts early '90s Dublin with equal parts decrepitude and affection. The characters are all working-class folks who have been taught not to expect much from life. They work in factories, abattoirs and on buses, or they collect unemployment. The one exception is the band’s manager, soul enthusiast Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins). His infectious ambition and enthusiasm help the members of the ragtag band he’s assembled discover unknown talents and a sense of purpose. They get a taste of what life could be like outside of the unsurprising existence they’ve always known, and it’s intoxicating.
Patti Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald), the heroine of Patti Cake$, shares a few characteristics in common with Jimmy. She’s charismatic, she lives in a depressed town, and she desires nothing more in her life than success in the music industry. Unlike the characters in The Commitments, however, Patti is already assured of her talent. The movie shows her story as a fairy tale, in which a talented but impoverished kid works her way through obstacles to achieve her big break.
But interestingly, in both cases, the film’s characters don’t really get to experience those big breaks, at least not in the way they expect to. Patti meets her idol, but the moment is ruined when he turns out to be a jerk and rejects her mixtape. Jimmy’s band dissolves after a big show, due to long-simmering infighting and egos that have steadily inflated as the members become more confident.
These are not the triumphant moments we’re led to expect from underdog movies. But, as Jimmy’s wise bandmate Joey tells him, in the world of the side hustle, “success,” as we’ve been told to understand it, isn’t really the point. Yes, confidence and skill are important. Yes, breakthroughs are thrilling. But more important than that is the drive that makes you do the thing in the first place.
We freelancers, garage craftspeople and weekend musicians do what we do because it takes us out of ourselves. We’re definitely not in it to get famous. Our passions remind us that the 9-to-5 isn’t all there is, and that more is possible. Both Patti Cake$ and The Commitments remind us that traditional perceptions of success can screw you up, but the joy of creating fulfilling work is what’s ultimately sustaining.