Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Drunk on Foolish Pleasures: The Blues Brothers

This week, I'm on a mission from God.

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.
Hanging around the lobby at the end of the screening, Terry and I noticed a well-dressed, bearded figure off by himself in the corner. It was 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.

My friends and I saw the Blues Brothers trailer many, many times in the winter of 1979, and when the film was finally released, we wondered why a few shots seemed to be missing -- most prominently, the gas station from the end of the film blowing up. Actually, Dan Aykroyd's original script was very long; he dubbed it Apocalypse Blues, and this was the version that was the basis for the novelization. If you can track down that elusive paperback, it reveals that, as first scripted, Jake and Elwood track down each member of their band individually, leading to many more subplots than the three we get in the film.

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."
THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Elwood Blues picks up his brother Jake on the day Jake is released from prison. They soon learn the orphanage in which they were raised is about to close because of unpaid back taxes. They resolve to "put their old band back together" and raise enough money to save the orphanage. They eventually rebuild the band and, after an initial gig in a country and western bar, play a big charity concert in a hotel ballroom. Trouble is, the money has to be delivered to the assessor's office the very next day. How on earth will they get it there in time?

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.
It is difficult to pick one favorite number, but SINCE YOU'RE ASKING I would have to say mine is Aretha Franklin's "Think." I remember reading a review from The New Yorker's Pauline Kael in which she expressed shock and incredulity that, at this juncture in the film, the Blues Brothers would take Matt Guitar Murphy and Blue Lou Marini with them and leave Aretha Franklin behind!

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.

THAT DAMN CAR CHASE: Many critics at the time of the film's original release objected to the interminable, outsized car chase that concludes the film. I have always liked the car chase; it is funny and exciting and the exaggeration is part of the joke. With each passing year, I grow to appreciate the car chase even more because I have come to the conclusion that the car chase is actually one of the film's more ambitious musical numbers. Think about it: It is set to music. It is choreographed. It features bodies in motion for our entertainment (in this case, the bodies are automobiles) doing things bodies in the natural, realistic world would find impossible to do. It asks us to suspend our disbelief a little more than the rest of the film as a whole.
This idea has since led to another critical insight -- this one about viewers who love action films and still hate musicals. Here's the insight, F-Heads: Fight scenes and car chases are the musical numbers of the twenty-first century.

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.

12 comments:

  1. Great column JB. The part with the SWAT team at the end of The Blues Brothers never fails to make me laugh. It's so silly, I love it.

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    1. Yes, I love the "hup hup hup" noises they make as they reppel down City Hall.

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  2. I don't want to know anyone who doesn't like Blues Brothers. I don't want to know anyone who likes Blues Brothers 2000.

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  3. Great pick. One of my favorite scenes is Jake begging for forgiveness and rattling off random excuses for missing his wedding. Carrie Fisher is pretty great in this movie, too.

    http://www.hulu.com/#!watch/29871 (login required)
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    JB wrote: ".. I have come to the conclusion that the car chase is actually one of the film's more ambitious musical numbers. Think about it: It is set to music. It is choreographed. It features bodies in motion for our entertainment (in this case, the bodies are automobiles) doing things bodies in the natural, realistic world would find impossible to do. It asks us to suspend our disbelief a little more than the rest of the film as a whole."

    I think this has become a dominant theme in popular cinema, but there is a huge difference in execution. The Blues Brothers movie gave us over-the-top spectacle at the apex of a fun and entertaining film. The car chase might be stupid, but it's stupid-good. Many modern blockbusters give us stupid-bad: a barage of over-the-top CGI sequences strung together in 2-3s increments and dominated by a blaring soundtrack. We get a blend of comic book, video game, and music video. Unfortunately, it often seems characters, storyline, and theme are superfluous.

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  4. I think any movie that has both Minnie the Moocher and a giant car chase within less than an hour of each other is worth seeing by merit alone. The fact that EVERYTHING in this movie is just as awesome as those two scenes is astonishing.

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  5. As someone who comes to visit Chicago and the rural parts of Illinois, The Blues Brothers seems like a tribute to the entire state of Illinois. I haven't watched it in years (I really should change that) but whenever I drive Route 66 in Illinois there seem to be more Blues Brothers locations or references along the highway than just about anything else. The Blues Brothers love Chicago, and Chicago loves the Blues Brothers.

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  6. I know F This Movie has a strict "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy but I'm just going to come right out and say it, consequences be damned. I've never seen The Blues Brothers. I'm sure that sacrilege to all you Chicagogodancers - I'll try to correct myself post haste!

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  7. My favourite number is 'Think' as well, which definitely has something to do with my huge love of Aretha Franklin. However, the film is filled with great moments that I also love. I bet you looked very cool in that costume! I think a Blues Brother has to be one of the most popular costumes. It is easy to do and everyone wants to look as cool as they do!

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  8. As a lifelong Chicagoan and nearby neighbor of plentiful Mount Prospect Police Cars, my affection for this movie is overwhelmingly bias. However, one of the main reasons I love this movie is because of it's more fantastical elements. Buildings get blown apart by bazooka wielding ex-fiancee, Nazi automobiles are dropped thousands of feet in the air and car chases tear apart a Jewel-Osco and Pier 1 Imports. Maybe more movies today could benefit from allowing a movie to be a movie.

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  9. I know I am several months late here, but since I've only just discovered your site, I have been getting caught up (and loving both the articles and the podcasts!).

    I have to comment about the Blues Brothers. As a native Jolietan and lifelong resident of Chicagoland (except for my college years in Milwaukee), this movie is core to my high school years since it came out the summer before I began high school at the all-girls Catholic school in town. My freshman year Homecoming week theme was "We're on a mission from God," and one day that week, everyone dressed as the Blues Brothers, even though we had to wear our plaid skirts with the white shirt, tie, jacket, and hat. When I went to college, the father of one of my roommates, a Mt. Prospect cop, said that his old police car was one of the Bluesmobiles used in the film. Also, my drama teacher in college played one of the two guards escorting Jake across the Collins St. prison--his name is directly above Belushi's in the end credits: "Gerald Walling, SJ". When I told him I was from Joliet, he and I bonded over the city.

    Love this movie sooo much! My favorite musical number is Ray Charles, with the groovin'performance and all the dancers outside. (There is a nice homage to that number in the Hanson music video for "Thinking 'Bout Somethin'", where they recreate it on the streets of Tulsa, their hometown.)

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    1. And the next time you watch the movie, look very carefully at the dancing crowd outside of Ray's Music Exchange near the end of the "Shake a Tailfeather" number. You'll notice a tall, white-haired old gentleman who looks out of place. That's George Folsey, the film's producer.

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