"We're on a mission from God."
The first thing I think about when I think about The Blues Brothers
is that it opened in
Los Angeles on the exact same day as Can't Stop the Music
. Yes, on Friday, June 20th,
1980, two big-budget,
heavily-promoted Hollywood musicals played within blocks of one another on
Hollywood Boulevard. One R-rated, the other PG, each a pre-fab pre-marketed project pitched to a specific (polar opposite) audience demographic. The timing of the release of Cant Stop The Music
couldn't have been less fortuitous; the unanticipated success of The Blues Brother
s spearheaded an R&B music resurgence and spawned a dreadful sequel. But as dissimilar as these two films appear to be on the surface, they have much in common.
Both are expensive pop musicals structured as the fictionalized biographies of
real-life "manufactured" musical acts that found unexpected success and a curious form of legitimacy during the late 1970s. I say curious because, to some extent, both The Blues Brothers and The Village People are novelty acts that were taken seriously as musicians after becoming chart-topping record sellers and popular touring acts. The acts themselves: The Village People was chiefly a collection of costumed dancers
marching behind a talented lead vocalist; The Blues Brothers, two costumed Saturday
Night Live alumni assuming alter-identity roles as the fictional characters fronting a band
of genuinely accomplished musicians.
|as "Joliet" Jake Blues|
|as Elwood Blues|
It can be argued that both bands benefited significantly from white
America's preference for the watered-down interpretations of musical styles rooted in the
Black American experience. Disco having developed from dance R&B and funk, while the blues came out of jazz and classic R&B. The "novelty act" identities of both bands was a form of winking pop-cultural pretense allowing the bands to market themselves in ways that expanded their appeal beyond the scope of their music. The Greenwich Village "types" that gave the Village People their costuming enabled the band to have it both ways: they were a gay band for those who "got" the coding; to the rest, they were just a party band. The Blues Brothers more or less updated an ages-old music industry trope: white audience resistance to Black artists allows mediocre covers performed by white musicians to outdistance the far earthier (re: too Black) originals.
To achieve the kind of mainstream success necessary to turn a profit, the PG-rated, $20 million Can't Stop the Music
needed to downplay The
Village People's gay disco origins and hopefully attract the same clueless pop/teen record-buying
audience that incredibly never picked up on the group's homoerotic costuming or the gay subtext
of songs like YMCA and Macho Man.
For The Blues Brothers
to succeed, this R-rated, $27 million well-intentioned "Tribute to African- American
(sentiments expressed by both Aykroyd & Belushi) had to play up the
faux "soul" personas of its two white male stars whose chief demographic, via SNL
and Animal House,
was 20-something straight white males. All the while exploiting the
fleeting "guest star" presence of Black entertainers who were the genuine article: i.e., true legends from the worlds of blues, jazz, and R&B.
In short- Can't Stop the
Music featured a gay band playacting as straight, and The Blues Brothers band featured two frontmen playacting at being Black.
But that's where the similarities end. Can't Stop the Music
banked everything on the enduring popularity of disco, but by the time the film hit theaters, disco had fallen out of favor. As a result, Can't Stop the Music
died a swift and ignominious death at the boxoffice. The Blues Brothers
, however, took a gamble on music that hadn't been popular among young people for many years. The film's unexpected blockbuster success sparked a renewed interest in classic R&B, and wound up rejuvenating the careers of the Black artists showcased in the movie.
In 1980, I was personally far too much into disco to even consider going to see The Blues Brothers, the first two weekends of its release finding me at the Paramount Theater (now The El Capitan) on Hollywood Blvd watching Can't Stop the Music playing to a near-empty house. I didn't actually see The Blues Brothers until after Xanadu had opened the following month. By then, the poorly-reviewed Belushi/Aykroyd starrer had already emerged as the hit of the summer... coming in second only to The Empire Strikes Back.
I can't profess to ever have been a big fan of SNL, I've never seen Animal House, and the appeal of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd was largely lost on me. So when they began appearing in concert as The Blues Brothers, opening for a young Steve Martin, I was among those baffled by their success. I genuinely thought their chart-topping 1978 LP "Briefcase Full of Blues" was a comedy album. I suspect my reaction to The Blues Brothers as a legitimate musical act was very likely similar to how rock fans reacted to The Monkees in the '60s.
|Chaka Khan has a cameo as a member of the Triple Rock Baptist Church choir|
But despite my initial misgivings, John Landis' The Blues Brothers
ultimately did more
than win me over; I actually fell in love with it. This ragtag tale of two musical miscreants
on a mission of reform took me back to my childhood; the film struck me as a hip
update of those overblown slapstick chase comedies like The Great Race
(1965), crossed with a hip Bob Hope Bing Crosby vibe, all added to one of those all-star cameo epics like Around the World in 80 Days
(1956). Set in contemporary Chicago, the tone of The Blues Brothers
and its depiction of Black culture is forever skirting the fine line between veneration and patronization (the Black artists are the supporting cast in a film dedicated to the music they invented). Still, the overall cleverness and humor of the film allow it to coast a great deal on good intentions, goodwill, and the exhilaration that comes from The Blues Brothers
being a bang-up, enjoyably silly musical comedy.
|Kathleen Freeman as Sister Mary Stigmata (The Penguin)|
|Carrie Fisher as the Mystery Woman|
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
That The Blues Brothers
is now considered by many to
be a classic (and deservedly so, in my opinion) has much to do with its age. Now almost 40
years old, many of the film's biggest fans discovered it on cable TV as kids, citing it as the first R-rated movie they ever saw. It also doesn't hurt that the film was a major boxoffice success, ranking as the 10th
highest-grossing film of 1980. But, linked as it is to the glory days of SNL
, The Blues Brothers
earns its status as a classic because it's remembered fondly for its guest roster of musical
greats. Even if you don't care for the film, there's no denying that something about The Blues
seized the public's imaginations enough for the group to become a household name and pop phenomenon. And like the film it most
resembles—the equally unwieldy and intermittently
funny car chase comedy It's a Mad, Mad,
Mad, Mad World
(1963) —The Blues Brothers
is a product of a distinct
era (the post-'70s blockbuster days of pre-CGI excess) and features the final
or only screen appearances of several entertainment industry greats no longer with us. In that respect, it can't help but look great from
a rear-view perspective.
|John Candy as Corrections Officer Burton Mercer|
I was a huge fan of The
Blues Brothers in 1980, seeing it so many times I could repeat jokes
and recite verbatim bits of dialogue. I still enjoy it a great deal, but upon
revisiting it recently via the extended Blu-ray edition (approximately 15-minutes longer than the theatrical), it became clearer to me that the music and musical sequences are where my heart lies. They're so good they tend to make me forget that the deadpan give-and-take between Jake and Elwood can feel a little draggy. The film's soundtrack is a major saving grace, the personal nostalgia dredged up by the songs reminding me of the music my parents used to play around the
house when I was a kid. It's only humor-wise where things start to get dicey for me. Aykroyd comes off as a nice kind of goofus type, but (and I know I'm alone in this) I honestly don't get Belushi's appeal. I kept waiting for him to catch fire on the screen, to show some flash of comic brilliance... but, zip. He starts out and remains a fairly inert presence. The contributions of the guest stars and cameos are fun, as are the almost surreal touches of over-scale lunacy that give the film the feel of a live-action Bugs Bunny cartoon.
|Twiggy as The Chic Lady|
But retro-romanticizing aside, I must confess that refamiliarizing myself with The Blues Brothers
left me at a bit of a loss when
it came to accessing what the hell I once thought was so outrageously funny about it all. Some bits
still get me, like the scene where a car driven by Nazis launches off an
unfinished freeway overpass to an absurdly high altitude. Or the way Elwood zeroes in on
a toaster oven (a slice of white bread materializing from his pocket) while the
band members examine musical instruments at Ray's shop. But did I really laugh that loud and long at the mere sight
of so many scenes of cars crashing into one another back in 1980? (Answer: Yes.) Did I
really not notice how women figure so marginally (and dismissively) in this
puerile boys club demolition derby fantasy? (Regrettably, yes.)
The whole viewing experience reminded me of when I
tried relistening to one of those '70s Cheech & Chong comedy albums that
were all the rage when I was in high school. Verdict: WTF?
|Henry Gibson as the Head Nazi|
Comedy tastes change, I know. And while I never tire of some
'70s comedies like What's Up, Doc?
, perhaps the style
of comedy that came into vogue at the start of the '80s—the cocaine-fueled
variety, anyway—just has a shorter shelf-life for me. (I'm equally immune to
the comedy of early Steve Martin and Robin Williams.). The biggest laugh The
elicited from me this time around is courtesy of footage not even found
in the original release. It's a scene where Cab Calloway explains to
the band that Jake and Elwood plan to give the proceeds from their Palace Hotel concert to the orphanage. The band members' collective reaction is excellent.
|Steve Lawrence as Maury Sline|
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
For many, The Blues Brothers
endures because of its standing as a filmed record of so many now-deceased legendary Black artists from the worlds of jazz, R&B, gospel, and blues. In a year that saw the release of many large-budget musical films--Xanadu
, Coal Miner's Daughter, The Apple, The Jazz
(which gave us Neil Diamond in blackface, fer chrissake), and Can't Stop the Music --The Blues Brothers
was the only one with soul. Too bad the only way to access it was after Belushi and Aykroyd had relinquished the spotlight.
The Blues Brothers
shines brightest in its musical interludes. And what a treat it is to see Aretha Franklin in her first movie appearance, James Brown singing gospel, Cab
Calloway in Technicolor, and a street full of Chicago residents doing the twist
to Ray Charles (the latter being the image that most stuck in my mind the first time I saw the film's trailer.)
Choreographed by the late Carlton Johnson (familiar to many
as the sole Black male member of the Ernie Flatt Dancers on The Carol Burnett Show
), each number is
a standalone set piece staged with witty exuberance and cinematic
My favorites, in order of preference:
Ray Charles - "Shake a Tailfeather"
Ray Charles really blows the roof off with his driving rendition of this upbeat R&B dance tune first sung by The Five Du-Tones in 1963, making it more than fitting that the number spills out into the Chicago streets, inspiring the first flash mob. Playing the proprietor of Ray's Music Exchange, where the band goes to purchase instruments, Charles' infectiously soulful vocals are so raw and playful that he fairly dares you to stay in your seat. Which makes it so ideal that the throngs of amateur dancers outside his store so enthusiastically accommodate his requests for a rundown of the popular dances of the '60s. I love absolutely everything about this number, which is the most assured in terms of choreography, staging, and editing. Just brilliant. Watch a clip of it HERE
|The center member of the Soul Food Chorus is Aretha Franklin's younger sister Carolyn|
Aretha Franklin - "Think"
Although she briefly sang and acted in a 1971 episode of TV's Room 222, The Blues Brothers marks Aretha Franklin's film debut. Cast as the wife of Blues Hall of Fame inductee Matt "Guitar" Murphy, Franklin's now-iconic performance of her 1968 hit "Think" is both rousing and an uncontested high point in the film. Many consider it the best number in the film, something I wouldn't necessarily argue with, save for a quibble or two. No one can fault Franklin's peerless performance and star quality, but my problem (and this is likely due to the multiple takes required due to Franklin's discomfort with lip-syncing) but the editing feels soggy and screws with the song's rhythm. Plus the imprecise staging frequently leaves Franklin not knowing what to do with her arms or body as she waits for the next verse.
James Brown - "The Old Landmark"
Jake and Elwood find religion and a higher purpose at the Triple Rock Baptist Church listening to the sermon of Rev. Cleophus James. And who wouldn't in the presence of The Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown? When the Reverend and his choir break into this 1949 gospel standard (which Brown had never heard of before) the church erupts into a jubilant revival production number that literally defies gravity. James Brown (a personal favorite) is dynamic as all get-out in this, the film's first musical set-piece, whose contagious energy and gymnastic, high-kicking dancers get things off to a very spirited start.
Cab Calloway - Minnie the Moocher
A delightful moment that I recall brought a round of applause from the movie theater audience I saw this with, was when 72-year-old Cab Calloway, as Curtis, the janitor at the orphanage where Jake and Elwood were raised, entertains a restless audience by magically morphing into the 1930s incarnation of the Big Band Cab Calloway we all remember (transforming the stage and the motley band members along with him). In the theatrical release, this stylish highlight was marred by cutaways to the tardy Blues Brothers trying to make it to the theater. The restored Blu-ray allows us to see more of Calloway's hep rendition of his 1931 signature song. A song he co-penned with Irving Mills, and which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, five years after Calloway's death.
|Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman) as a waiter at the Chez Paul restaurant|
As my partner can attest, a favorite phrase of mine
is "Two things can be true at once." A phrase that comes in particularly handy when
writing about film. Take, for example, the observation that Faye Dunaway is an unrepentant
ham, while at the same time being an absolutely brilliant actress. Both are circumstantially true, resulting in the truth of one not negating the truth of the other. It's all a matter of perspective.
As per The Blues
Brothers: It's true the film and its makers provide a respectful and, in
some instances, classic showcase for Black artists ignored by Hollywood. It's a
fact that Aykroyd and Belushi used the privilege of their fame and took a risk
on the moneymaking potential of the film by insisting on hiring these legendary
Black stars and featuring so many Black faces in the supporting cast. (Theater
distributors like Mann's Westwood, not wanting what they perceived to be a "Black
film" in their neighborhoods, wound up cutting The Blues Brothers opening venues by more than half.) It's also
true The Blues Brothers was
instrumental in a whole new generation of people discovering music and artists that white record companies and radio stations had long ignored.
All that being said, it's also true that The Blues Brothers
is almost embarrassing as an example of cultural appropriation. When my parents (who grew up on real blues
and jazz) watched The Blues Brothers
on cable TV many years ago, their takeaway
was that the Black performances in the film reminded them of the days when Lena
Horne would appear in isolated numbers in MGM musicals so that her scenes could
be edited out when the films played in the South.
Subtextually, Black culture is used as a backdrop in The Blues Brothers, a thing Jake and
Elwood have free access to lay claim to and use in any way they wish. Black
music is theirs to perform, Black personas are theirs to adopt; all the while they're
secure in the fact that they don't even have to be any good to succeed—they merely
have to be Not Black. An unfortunate fact borne out by the music history statistic that both The Blues Brothers soundtrack and the
aforementioned Briefcase Full of Blues rank as the top-selling blues albums of all time. My head hurts just thinking about
|Critics of the film rightfully question whether the humor of The Blues Brothers |
is rooted in merely seeing whites occupying Black spaces
None of this should detract from the obvious merits of The Blues Brothers. It's mentioned merely to call attention to talking points and food for thought that's impossible to ignore when watching a nearly 40-year-old film.
I consider The Blues Brothers to be a classic, but to true fans of blues and R&B, Aykroyd and Belushi are a bit like the Jayne Meadows (wife of Steve Allen) and Nanette Newman (wife of director Bryan Forbes) of Soul: if you want to see Aretha Franklin and James Brown on the screen, you have to take Jake and Elwood in the bargain.
|Steven Spielberg as the Cook County Office Clerk|
A poorly-received Blues Brothers sequel--Blues Brothers 2000--
was made in 1998, some 16-years after John Belushi's death. Co-written by Aykroyd and Landis, this PG-13 misguided venture brought back several members of the original cast (Aretha Franklin, James, Brown, Steve Lawrence, Kathleen Freeman) but to less entertaining effect. Budgeted at $28 million, it grossed something in the neighborhood of $14 million. I tried watching it, but the introduction of that kid Blues Brother did me in.
|Choreographer Carlton Johnson staging Franklin's "Think" musical number|
The sixty-minute 1998 behind-the-scenes documentary "The Stories Behind the Making of The Blues Brothers"
is currently available on YouTube. Click Here
Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 - 2019
Thanks Ken for another highly insightful and thought-provoking treatment.ReplyDelete
I’d always wondered why “The Blues Brothers” makes me cringe when I should like it for the music alone if nothing else. Your parents’ take on it triggered reasons why I dislike it, and I agree with their sentiment to a great degree. When it comes to the actual music in and around the movie, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles and James Brown by 1979 had as much (or as little) blues authenticity as well…Lena Horne. They were simply all established "crossover" acts. Historically, selling to whites has always been both the ideal music business model, as well as an artistic goal. It’s within that uneasy alliance that crimes like racism, sexism, cultural appropriation and homophobia aren’t necessarily central to flogging a lucrative product. Importantly, a sync-up with a movie usually sends the real value of that product into the stratosphere for its real owners, while the nominal artist sees little or no reward.
Popular music can often justify itself as progressive on all social matters, with one glaring exception: its ruthless greed and underhanded exploitation of youth and talent. And yes, the fact that the Blues Brothers records sold so well is enough to do any lover of Black music’s head in. But following the murky money trail to copyrights and contracts usually turns up truths about a business which impoverishes and destroys artists in a most color-blind and non-discriminatory manner.
As a footnote, Dan Akroyd’s money-making “House Of Blues” franchises claim to be on a mission “to promote African-American cultural contributions of blues music and folk art”. “To what end?” I’d cynically ask - along with wanting to know just how and where the music royalty dollars are flowing. Matters pertinent to cultural appropriation (and virtue signalling) could be taken from there!
Rick - The Aberrant Homosexualist
Thanks for bringing up so many well-considered points in your comment. Yes, THE BLUES BROTHERS is certainly a movie one wants to enjoy for the marvelous music alone—and by and large, I do. But with each passing year, Jake & Elwood’s graceless dancing and (to me) second-rate covers of those classic R&B songs grows increasingly outré. The film clearly wants to celebrate Black music, but is oblivious to its own uncomfortable subtext: Black culture is there for the taking and ownership of white culture, which has monopolized the routes of access, dissemination, and monetization.
Aykroyd’s lifelong love of blues music is real and sincere, and it’s both admirable and important that he uses his privilege and visibility as a white male celebrity to promote Black music. His heart and intentions are clearly in the right place. One just wishes that perhaps there were more Black individuals (or even one) Black people involved in the creative process of THE BLUES BROTHERS to raise the issue of the appearance of cultural appropriation.
As I said, two things can be true at once: THE BLUES BROTHERS was a boon to the careers of several of its recording artists (from a financial, if not cultural, perspective). But to know that an entire generation prefers Aykroyd & Belushi’s version of “Soul Man” over the infinitely superior 1967 original by Sam & Dave is to stare the downside of cultural appropriation in its bland, flavorless, unseasoned eye.
Thanks for bringing up so many talking and thought point, allowing me to extrapolate further on the topic. Always grateful when you take the time to read my posts and comments. And I recommend to any readers here to check out Rick's blog The Aberrant Homosexualist (Link in the Favorite Sites sidebar) for marvelous think pieces on a variety of topics.
That’s right Ken – a movie like “The Blues Brothers” raises a ton of questions around both the music and cultural appropriation.Delete
In Dan Akroyd’s defence it needs to be pointed out that the producers wanted contemporary musical acts, with a view to replicating the success of “Carwash”. So in terms of the “Classic Soul / R&B” artform it’s a glass-half-full situation. It’s this music I’ve been passionately stuck in since I was a kid, so that’s my bias disclosed! But I do begrudgingly accept that all musical forms evolve into something else, with tribute efforts like the B.B.s recorded covers being mere tributes. The Ike & Tina Turner Revue they’re not.
We’re probably on the same page when it comes to the substance of cultural appropriation. Superficially it’s about copping style, but that’s a backhanded compliment without the organic and visible involvement of “the real thing”
Extrapolate on! As I see it, if a blog post isn’t open to extrapolation it’s probably just a very long tweet without much nuance. Long may the comments run, and many may they be!
And a big “thank you” for the kind words – very much appreciated and most encouraging! Coincidentally (and not entirely unrelated to the topic), I’m working on a challenging piece on atm Marvin Gaye & it’s coming together quite well.
You're welcome, RickDelete
Taking the opportunity to extrapolate further for the sake of readers to clarify a few points I missed in my first reply.
From the days of Lena Horne on, the only reason Black artists ever sought to appeal to white audiences is because Institutionalized racism, Jim Crow, and segregation made it possible for whites to control a disproportionate amount of radio stations, publishing houses, record labels, arenas, and clubs. Appealing to white audiences was the only way for Black performing artists to survive.
Exploitation of the artist in widespread in the music industry anyway, but it shouldn’t be equated with the specific, racially-based exploitation Black artists faced that results in erasure, whitewashing, and cultural appropriation. It’s specific to Black art that the larger white culture assumes it to theirs to use and access without even understanding (hence producers would think Rose Royce is a viable alternative to classic R&B artists).
Aykroyd’s insistence on hiring the true creators of the sound he and Belushi stood to make millions off of co-opting shouldn’t be seen as something presented in his defense. It’s an apologist position that assumes he is doing THEM a favor. It could be argued that Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, and Cab Calloway are really the ones that did Aykroyd and Landis the biggest favor, for their participation provides the film with the only musical legitimacy it has. If these artists’ careers were in decline, I attribute it to the fact and long-held tradition that the music industry has never given the same kind of financial support, resources, and exposure to Black artists as it has white artists.
Thus, when a “tribute” band like THE BLUES BROTHERS co-opts the sound, look, and style of Black artists without fully understanding the economics of racism that has made watered-down, sound-alike music by white artists more commercially desirable than the very same thing by Black artists, then it doesn’t really matter if the intentions are honorable or it’s done with affection; it contributes to the whitewashing and erasure of the culture it seeks to honor.
The alternative? Many white artists like The Rolling Stones, Carpenters, and Rod Stewart have recorded covers of Black R&B songs without trying to imitate the style. The results are great and the music retains its integrity.
And for the following reasons:
1. "Well intended" isn't a really important factor in the (relatively recent) evolution of so-called Race Music to mainstream popularity.
2. I dismiss Akroyd / Blues Brothers as a branding exercise which doesn't represent any actual advancement in that evolution. Of course those artists did him a favor. The contemptuous "tribute band" moniker is well-deserved.
3. A third of a century on, it's more important than ever that these discussions continue. One of the biggest internet forums on recorded music has policies in place which effectively ban such discussions: in their whitewashed view of things it's all right now so anything to do with race (or "gay stuff") just ain't acceptable!
Times may change, faces may change. But the perniciousness of racism does not.
Rick - The (Rebranded!) Aberrant Homosexualist
I gotta admit, I only saw this once (on cable), and wasn't really a fan. The cameo performances are great, but the rest just seemed unfunny and overblown unless you went in believing Aykroyd and Belushi were always hilarious, and I think I was beyond that point. Plus, I had no idea it was two and a half hours long and kept waiting for it to finish.ReplyDelete
I hated that the musical performances had to be "legitimized" by a watered-down imitation. And, at the time, I was very much into pre-war acoustic blues, so even the title pissed me off. But I guess "The Soul/R&B Brothers" wouldn't've cut it.
I actually saw Blues Brothers 2000--a friend had free passes to a preview and I still felt like I wanted my money back.
There's something so sustained and unvarying in the worldview presented in The Blues Brothers that it holds up as a comedy for me. but I agree that it must play a good deal funnier if your're predisposed to finding Aykroyd and Belushi irresistibly hilarious. (It's that way with my friends who like Monty Python. They crack up practically before anyone even does anything.)Delete
And I'm with you in that another of the film's unintentional but nevertheless problematic subtexts is that as the film is structured and the given the SNL demographic for whom the film is made, the white gaze of Jake and Elwood (and their poor imitation/tribute)does indeed appear to help "legitimize" the music. It's like when white kids "discovered" rap when Blondie sang "Rapture" or when everybody thought Madonna invented Voguing.
THE BLUES BROTHERS is indeed a long movie (I was thrilled by the extended DVD, you would have slipped into a coma), but how you made it through BB 200) I'll never know. (though your comment did make me laugh!)
Thanks for commenting, MDG!
Our paths cross again. Precisely when you were in LA going twice to see "Can't Stop the Music" in an empty theater, I was in NYC. Going twice to see "Can't Stop the Music" in an otherwise empty theater. The Ziegfeld in NYC was great. But the El Capitan! My, that would have been something. "Blues Brothers" just had to wait.ReplyDelete
In my case, it's still waiting. Your comments about the 1980's drug-fueled frat boy humor makes me sure that long wait is not a huge problem. The original "Ghostbusters" got past me, too. About 2 years ago, I saw it in a thrift store on DVD for $1 and decided to see it. It was awash in pot-head frat boy Reagan-induced clichéd sexist humor that I recalled all too well from the early 80's. It turns out that the sexual politics have changed dramatically since then, making an unfunny film even more awkward and unfunny. I suspect that much the same sort of thing is going on here.
Belushi, Aykroyd, Animal House, SNL... it's all way too heterosexual for me. Very popular in its day, but so limited. Somewhere in my resistance to it, I failed to take note of the great R&B stars who are featured in this film. Thank you for correcting that omission.
I'll be on the lookout for another $1 DVD. Armed with a glass of wine and the Fast Forward, I think it will be great.
Ha! Two coasts, two enormous theaters visited twice to see a film most folks can't even sit through once! I'd only seen the outside of the Ziegfeld theater when I visited NYC for the 1st time in 1983, but it looked great. In 1980 Hollywood's The El Capitan had foolishly covered up all of its Spanish Baroque gorgeousness with 60s steamline (with disco balls, yet), so while it was a nice, spacious theater, it was nothing like its present, restored fabulousness.Delete
As for THE BLUES BROTHERS, my own personal fondness for the film aside, I think you summed up perfectly why it is a pass for a great many people. Indeed, I'm glad someone finally used the term "frat-boy humor" because it identifies what I've always felt was the cis/hetero dominated comedy of SNL, but I avoid the term because I hate contributing to the social smokescreen that has whites male of a certain age culturally aligned with college and fraternities (you even see it in the marketing of gay porn!), when Black males of the same age are at best aligned to a football/jock hetero stereotype, or worse, ghetto/thug image.
At least the cultural landscape and sexual politics have shifted enough to replace the implied elitism of the term "frat boy" with the more general (but equally toxic) "bro culture." And any films targeting and appealing to that demographic would be off my "must-see" list for sure.
And you're right in nothing that the whole SNL style of humor was popular in its day (and even deemed progressive), but it is limited, and as time goes on the film becomes more and more an artifact of its time.
One of the things that made Blues Brothers 2000 so hard to watch was that felt so reductive for a "sequel" made 18 years after the original...it was still so stuck in its '80s sensibilities.
I do love this movie, but that's me nostalgically tied in with the era and circumstances I saw it. But a perfect one-line TV guide review of THE BLUES BROTHERS would be the opening line of your comment: "Belushi, Aykroyd, Animal House, SNL... it's all way too heterosexual for me." Thanks so much for commenting, George!
This film takes me back. I remember vaguely when it came out. I had just started watching Saturday Night Live (my parents had finally stopped making me go to bed at 10) and so knew the names of the two stars. However, I didn't see the movie until years later (edited on TV). I don't really recall it well. I can only remember their weird eating habits (a whole chicken?) and the fact that Princess Leia was trying to kill one of them. However, I had some friends who had seen it and loved it. They were constantly quoting the movie and, one Halloween, two of them came to school dressed as the Blues Brothers. (The effect was underwhelming as they were both around 6 feet tall...they looked like Dan Ackroyd clones).ReplyDelete
THE BLUES BROTHERS really kicked off the tradition of expanding 4-minute SNL comedy sketches into feature films. Maybe none of us should forgive it for that. But it certainly was a popular film at the time.Delete
In recounting what you manage to recall after having seen the film only once on TV, I think you tap into the quirkiness of the characters and comedy that contribute to its cult status. Even as it feels more archaic with each passing year, I know that it is still full of beloved memories for some.
I know many in the Black community loved the film simply because they loved seeing so many Black faces people in a major motion picture. In the 70s films with Black actors were often categorized as "blaxploitation" no matter what the topic, and as evidenced by THE BLUES BROTHERS losing a third of its bookings because distributors thought it was a "Black film"... Hollywood wasn't going out of its way to hire African-Americans at the time.
You'll see more Black people in THE BLUES BROTHERS than all the TV seasons of Seinfeld, Sex in the City, and Friends combined; so it never surprised me that this film was embraced by so many in the Black community (my sister absolutely loves it, even today. She's one of those who can quote the film at length), finding the film's awkward cultural appropriation no more discomfiting than the outright racism and invisibility offered by so many other major films released at the time. It's always been my position that the makers of THE BLUES BROTHERS should never confuse the Black community's love of the high-visibility of African-Americans in the film with an acceptance of the way they are sometimes patronizingly presented.
I was long out of school when the film came out, but I remember the HUGE youth-oriented merchandising surrounding this R-rated film. I can well imagine there were many Blues Brothers appearances at Halloween (but a tall Blues Brother is, indeed, always Elwood).
Thanks for reading this essay and for sharing your memories of this film with us!
The mention of Lena Horne made me think of the parallels between the way the musical acts in The Blues Bros and black acts in classical Hollywood movies are presented, that is, as self-contained units that could be snipped out in prints distributed in the south. Obviously that wasn't going to happen in 1980, but there are those echoes.ReplyDelete
Yes! Precisely what my parents took away from their one-off exposure to THE BLUES BROTHERS on cable TV. They grew up at a time when there "race films": the name given to all-Black productions from independent Black filmmakers and Black studios made for segregated Black audiences. When Hollywood stamped out these independent Black-owned studios (sometimes burning them out)and replaced their product with the kind of segregationist entertainment we're referencing, my parents remembered clearly what a jarring readjustment it was...Black leading men and women, all-Black love stories, dramas, cowboy movies, and musicals...only to suddenly be easily edited away "guest stars" in white films.Delete
As I reference in the essay, THE BLUES BROTHERS brought back to my parents memories of the days when Black stars like Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge,and The Nicholas Brothers appeared in isolated musical segments specifically designed for their ease of extraction in segregated states.
If you've ever seen "La La Land" you'll see that Hollywood still has a lot to learn when it comes to inclusion of Black artists in white narratives.
If you read about the making of THE BLUES BROTHERS, at times you'd think you were reading about a film being made in the 1930s: white-owned studios and distributors were terrified that Aykroyd and Belushi were betraying their white fan-base (and risking profits) by aligning themselves with a the dreaded "Black audience"...the display of institutionalized racism of so-called liberal Hollywood when it comes to the making of this film is more than a little stomach-turning. I think Aykroyd had to battle to even get the Black artists in the film on the soundtrack album (the studio only wanted Blues Brothers covers). In the final negotiation they refused to include on the LP the one true Blues artist in the entire movie: John Lee Hooker.
"If you've ever seen "La La Land" you'll see that Hollywood still has a lot to learn when it comes to inclusion of Black artists in white narratives."ReplyDelete
Wow. And a lot is crystallized with that one sentence. I don't think I've ever received that thought so clearly before. My head is schpinning, as Lotte Lenya says on the CABARET cast album. Thank you.
It seems perfectly clear. There is no place for Black artists in a white narrative. If it is a white narrative.. well, there you have it. It's White. What kind of fucked up thing is a "white narrative?" That's the problem, right there. If it's going to be a "white narrative," and there are lots of them churned out by Hollywood, then just call Central Casting and line up some maids. A white narrative is not going to need more than that. But it's phoney.
Even as a little white boy in the very racist Indiana of the 1960's, I had black students in my elementary school classes. I was aware of Martin Luther King, and Angela Davis, and Ralph Abernathy and Stokely Carmichael. I saw really angry black people rioting on television and as a child, I didn't understand any of that at all, but they scared me and I understood there was a big problem there. I saw Resurrection City on television. Being a lttle gay child, I noticed Pearl Bailey on television and loved her. My mother was a nurse and I was a latch-key child, and though others might thoughtlessly associate me with Earl J. Waggedorn, I totally identified with Corey. I had friends in my school and in my neighborhood whose parents joined country clubs so that their families would not have to swim in a pool with black people. And my mother explained to me very clearly that this is what country clubs are for.
If a little WASP boy in racist Indiana could not have a white narrative, the kind we STILL see in the movies all the time, then no one in this country can. I did the Ancestry DNA test and I am the effing gold standard for WASP. Which princess is the fairest in all the Land? ME! Even so, I could not make my story a 'white narrative.' There were so many wonderful black people that I knew growing up, even in that racially fraught time and place, who contributed greatly to my understanding of the world and of kindness and generosity and love.
You simply must ruthlessly excise a great deal from any white person's life from the past 400 years (or more) to distill a white narrative. White narratives don't exist in nature. Not in this country, anyway. They are artificial; frauds from the first to the last word of the story and they deserve to be called out for the racist claptrap that they are from start to finish.
Obviously, I knew all that on some level, but you did the post-production work and made it play. Thank you!
Thank you sharing this. As you indicate, unless one makes a truly concentrated effort for it not to be so, the narrative thread of most people's lives is far more inclusive and than mainstream motion pictures reflect.Delete
It's taken many years, but the new technologies available now have made it possible for more people to have access to the means of creating their own narratives and allowing all of us to hear a voice and see a vision of a world not filtered through such a staunchly white, heterosexual male perspective.
To live in the world in an engaged and aware manner is not that hard, but it certainly is rare.
Thanks for providing such a relatable personal perspective on the matter.
In 80’s France, SNL was an unknown quantity so French distributors had to rely on the star power of the R’n’B guest stars to sell the film to audiences.ReplyDelete
I remember thinking there was way too much (unfunny) white boy schtick when I finally saw the film during a reissue a few years later so their marketing strategy worked too well.
Landis always exhibited an rarely touched-upon affinity for black casts throughout his career, I was surprised he was discussed so little in your review.
I can imagine the French perspective. For virtually everyone I knew at the time, the R&B stars were the draw of the film, not Belushi and Aykroyd, who few of my friends were all that familiar with.ReplyDelete
As for Landis, I left discussion of John Landis out intentionally. I specifically wanted my essay to focus on the issue of Black contribution vs. Black acknowledgement. It would have been an entirely new essay topic of focus for me to go into John Landis, his films, and Hollywood's fondness for and perpetuation of the "White Savior Myth" --the way Black art first needs to be legitimized by the white gaze of recognition by the Otto Premingers, Dick Clarks, etc...before white audiences feel comfortable being exposed to it and consuming it.
The choreographer, Carlton Johnson was my neighbor (and friend of my parents) for years in Los Angeles. He was an extremely nice person with a great smile and a great laugh. My parents told me the story where he managed to help them get a full-sized refrigerator up two flights of exterior flagstone steps, single-handedly, and without much effort, despite his slim build. Even though I was a small child I remember his tastefully decorated home with purple and grey accents and Hollywood memorabilia on the walls. He was taken too young and it still makes me sad to have lost such a talented person of his age.ReplyDelete
Thank you very much for sharing such a touching personal reference to/remembrance of Carlton Johnson! I love the idea of his performing the superhuman feat of carrying that refrigerator up those stairs for your parents.Delete
I've only ever admired his work, your anecdote makes me think I would have admired the man as well. And yes, definitely taken too young. Your taking the time to contribute here is much appreciated!