Tuesday, May 6, 2014
Drunk on Foolish Pleasures: The Blues Brothers
The original theatrical release of The Blues Brothers coincided with my graduation from high school. My friends and I saw the film dozens of times that summer. In the fall, during our first semester of college, my roommate and I actually competed in some look-alike and sound-alike contests at various campus bars. I was the fat one. We always won.
ANNOYING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAUSE: My friend and roommate Terry and I managed to snag tickets to the film's premiere from some local radio station. The promotional tickets urged us to "dress like the Blues Brothers," and that we did. We were later featured in the local paper, posing with 20 other sets of brothers -- a Blues Army, if you will.
Blues Brothers director John Landis. We recognized him because we were such fans of his earlier film Animal House, but no one else leaving the screening seemed to know who he was. We struck up a conversation, and Landis was generous with his time. He found it curious that we had seen his earlier film so many damn times and delighted in the trivia we brought to his attention. ("Who's that guy behind the Mayor at the Homecoming parade? He seems to have gotten hold of a copy of the script and is mouthing the words along with Cesare Danova!")
By and by, another bearded man joined our group: Bernie Brillstein, who was John Belushi's manager at the time. The four of us talked and talked. Brillstein suddenly asked, "Would you two like to meet John and Danny? They're presenting the City of Chicago with a check tomorrow. If you guys come to City Hall, I'll make sure you meet them."
Be still our beating hearts!
I got to revisit that magical meeting thirty-two years later, watching the A&E Biography of John Belushi. Apparently, many photographs were taken that day at City Hall, and Terry and I show up in a few of the photos used at the end of the program. That's right: Terry and I "appear" in John Belushi's life story, albeit as mere cameos.
Some of the material was reinstated for the special director's cut released in 1998. I still prefer the theatrical version; it is the version I have seen the most times. Whenever I watch the director's cut, it's like I'm watching the film in another dimension or in some sort of dream. "Wait, what? That doesn't belong there."
Did I mention that the movie features cameos and musical numbers by James Brown, Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, and Cab Calloway?
I find it interesting that all my favorite dialogue in the film emanates from the Elwood character, portrayed, of course, by screenwriter Aykroyd. It helps that the dialogue in question is delivered with Aykroyd's perfect Chicago accent. A sampling:
"We're on a mission from Gaad."
"We'll talk to Baab."
"This is glue. Strahhhhng stuff."
and most especially, in the middle of their performance of "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love:"
"You know, people, when you do find somebody, hold that woman, hold that man; love him, hold him, squeeze her, please her, hold, squeeze and please that person, give 'em all your love, signify your feelings with every gentle caress, because it's so important to have that special somebody to hold, kiss, miss, squeeze, and please..."
Like Singing in the Rain, The Blues Brothers is a musical for people who hate musicals. John Landis has noted that the way the musical numbers are integrated into the plot, people are surprised to learn that the film did indeed employ an honest-to-God choreographer.
In the comments section of a previous column, we were discussing the difference between diagetic and non-diagetic musical numbers. The Blues Brothers is interesting in that, because the movie is about a working blues band, most of the music is diagetic, meaning that there is a logical and realistic reason for the musical performance to exist within the characters' reality. James Brown sings because he is a preacher in a gospel church. Ray Charles sings because he is demonstrating the quality of the instruments he sells our heroes. Cab Calloway sings because he is warming up the crowd before the climactic concert. Every Blues Brothers number is presented as a performance: at a bar, in a theater, and even in prison in the film's coda, as the boys entertain their fellow prisoners.
Yet there are also non-diagetic elements: Franklin's entire performance in the diner; the impromptu but highly choreographed neighborhood dance party on the street outside of Ray's Music; and the white tuxedos that Cab and the band sport for "Minnie the Moocher."
Perhaps "Think" is my favorite because, as the film's least-diagetic number, it reminds me most of the old-school Hollywood musicals I love. Or maybe I love it simply because Aretha Franklin has one of the greatest singing voices of the 20th Century. So there's that.
EVERY movie asks us to suspend our disbelief. Maybe in the 21st Century we're still more than willing to suspend our disbelief for a clearly fanciful sequence that "stops" the film in its tracks... but only if someone gets hurt.