I rewatched The Blues Brothers yesterday which as it turns out was an incredibly appropriate thing to do as I have since learnt that yesterday was the fortieth anniversary of the movie’s release in US cinemas. The reason I sat down with it again, probably for the first time in around seven years, but probably for about the twentieth time in total, is because I am part of a little lockdown film club where we meet online once a week to talk about a movie. The Blues Brothers was this weeks choice. It was the guy who selected it that told be about the significance of the date but I don’t believe he knew when he suggested it either.
Interestingly, on learning of what we were to be watching this time, one of our number immediately responded to say that he hated The Blues Brothers. This I don’t get, how can anyone hate The Blues Brothers? Another friend told us that The Blues Brothers was a family favourite and as a kid she used to quote it all the time. That’s a much more normal reaction, I think. Apparently her brother even dressed up as a Blues Brother for his High School Graduation and why not? Needless to say, we’ll all be donning the black suit and tie combo when we get together on Microsoft Teams on Wednesday night. (Its a particularly easy costume, credit to another of this group who wore a pilot outfit when we did Top Gun.)
For a film that courts anarchy, The Blues Brothers is such a well meaning and charming movie. The title characters, Jake and Elwood, have no respect for rules or convention and are selfish in their selfless holy mission but are so likeable that you’d forgive them anything (proven when Carrie Fisher’s mystery woman does so at the end). Both Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi are giving dialled down performances compared to their other work but at no point do you feel distanced from them. Their commitment to saving the Catholic* orphanage they were raised in and their commitment to one another is endearing and all they want to do in life is share great music and entertain and they do both of these with consummate cool.
*Ten years ago The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano’ formally endorsed The Blues Brothers as a good film to watch for its promotion of the church and Catholics values.
The film is also really funny and the duo’s restrained, deadpan characterisation is key to this. The scene where they comment on the retail opportunities and sale offers as they move round the shopping mall is hilarious, ignoring as it does that they are not on foot but behind the wheel of their 1974 Dodge Monaco sedan as they tear around being chased by police. Watch this scene again, it is also amusing how many shop fronts they crash through completely unnecessarily where there is plenty of room for them to just drive by. My favourite moments when I first watched it though, and still my favourite moments now, are after each time Carrie Fisher has tried to kill them. They get blown up but just dust off the building debris without comment or get shot into the air in a phone box and land in a pile of glass, steel and quarters only to matter of factly observe how much change has come out. It’s as though they haven’t even noticed they are being targeted but I also love it that you find out they have when, on their last encounter, Elwood finally asks his sibling ‘who is this girl?’.
As if all of this wasn’t enough this movie also has a social conscience. There is commentary here on the pressures and limits of working class America. This is set out in the film’s otherwise incongruous opening shots of industrial landscapes and refineries. The Blues Brothers, for all its comedy, artifice and surrealism, is examining the lives of poor American citizens not often depicted in Hollywood.
Then of course, there’s the Nazis. With the rise of open white supremacy going on at the moment, connected to the man Spike Lee’s latest movie refers to as the klan member in the Oval Office, it is welcome to see these bigots mocked as the small minded, hateful turd machines that they are. It was no less topical at the time though as the group and their bridge blocking demonstration, held after they ‘won their court case’ is a reference to real events in the mid 70s, where the National Socialist Party of America held public rallies across Illinois after being awarded the right to do so in the Supreme Court. I don’t think it is any accident that the crowd standing against these scudballs in the film are all white either making this not just a race issue but a human one, then as it is now.
Let’s not pass over the strong women in the movie either. There’s the penguin and Carrie Fisher and Aretha Franklin. I mean, they all have flaws, only Sister Mary Stigmata actually gets a character name and Aretha’s feminist anthem Think is undermined somewhat by her husband’s response to it but they are as admirable and easily as memorable as anyone else on screen, if not more so.
Then finally there are all those great tunes and the joyous dance numbers too. The music in The Blues Brothers is superb. Songs like Everybody Needs Somebody to Love and Gimme Some Lovin and all of those featured R&B classics have entered popular culture now so we take them for granted a little but they are brilliant.
So I respectfully repeat my question to my peroxide blonde friend (I don’t know how he pulls it off, the guy is my age but he totally makes it work), how can anyone hate The Blues Brothers?
I guess I’ll find out on Wednesday.