A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.
1980: On a Mission from God
THE BLUES BROTHERS (dir. John Landis)
In general, I’m a little nervous about doing these writeups about movies I love, because if someone’s going to take the time to read one of these, I don’t want to waste their time with endless “OMG IT RULES!!!!” 1980 poses a tough challenge, though, because the obvious movie to talk about is The Blues Brothers, and it happens to be not just a movie that I love, but one that I love so much that I think some of its themes are implanted into the wiring of my head.
Luckily, I do think there’s some interesting bigger-picture stuff to talk about here. Theology, cultural identity, that kind of fun stuff.
There’s probably no need to do a close rehash of The Blues Brothers; if you’re reading this, I assume you’ve seen it (and if you haven’t: you should!). But there are a lot of top-level things to note about it! For instance, it’s the first (and by far best) case of a Saturday Night Live bit becoming a movie. It features John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd doing maybe the best work either of them ever did. It’s about a couple of white weirdos* who love Black music, and believe they’re on a divine mission to use the power of music to save the orphanage where they were raised. It is itself a musical!
*It’s never made clear, as far as I can tell, if we’re supposed to consider them biological brothers or if they just have a sort of spiritual/musical brotherhood; maybe that doesn’t matter, and maybe that’s another point the movie’s making, intentionally or otherwise. And, of course, a couple of white guys who are trafficking so heavily in Black-coded culture referring to themselves as “brothers” is certainly a loose thread to be tugged at endlessly.
All of those descriptors pile up to make the movie sound awfully weird; and it is awfully weird, and I think that’s why it made such an impact and why it endures. For all the straightforwardness of its plot (in video game turns, The Blues Brothers is a bunch of strung-together fetch quests, many of which culminate in musical numbers), this is a movie with a bizarre, offbeat sensibility. I credit most of this to Aykroyd (and, sigh, Landis, who co-wrote, and whose record as a director of offbeat, funny movies can’t be denied even if you acknowledge the several very bad things he’s responsible for), who had a profoundly strange (presumably coke-aided) vibe going at the time that manages to create a world that’s both deranged but somehow sort of internally consistent. And then Aykroyd and Belushi both bring that energy straight to the screen; the guy dryly asking about his cheese-wiz or the diner order of dry white toast and a bunch of whole fried chickens makes a sort of sense with them onscreen.
I was dimly aware of Saturday Night Live as a young kid, but didn’t really start watching until later in the 80s. Which is to say that when I saw The Blues Brothers (and I can’t remember exactly when it was, but this is certainly another one that I saw a lot younger than I probably should have), I saw it as its own standalone thing, not as a continuation of an SNL bit that also sort of existed as a possibly-meant-to-be-taken-seriously musical act.
And I feel like that’s a boundary condition I need to lay out, because it has a huge impact on my super-subjective impression on the most contentious thing about The Blues Brothers, both movie and general phenomenon: are they engaging in cultural appropriation?
Recognizing that, as a middle-aged white guy, I have about the lowest possible rhetorical standing on this question, I feel like the appropriation thing is a question that reads really differently depending on which aperture you’re looking through. To take the one I defaulted to for most of my life, looking at it just as a movie without much awareness of the skits and concerts before it: on its own, The Blues Brothers feels like a movie that’s refreshingly willing to use comedy and music to explore some nuances of race and culture in America (with a side mission to expose white America to the best of Black musical talent of the preceding few decades) and, if it occasionally veers into spots that maybe felt OK at the time but haven’t aged well, it’s doing it with its heart in the right place and with a deep and genuine love for Black culture (this is, after all, a movie that devotes a huge chunk of its running time to musical showcases for giants of midcentury Black musicians; this movie is where I discovered Aretha Franklin and James Brown John Lee Hooker and Ray Charles and Cab fuckin’ Calloway; the extreme focus of this musical sequences makes it very clear that showing off these artists was a major goal of the movie). It never comes out and says it in plain English, but the movie’s clearly arguing for open-minded and open-hearted cultural syncretism, saying that white guys who steep themselves deeply enough in Black culture (going so far as to be raised by Cab Calloway)* can participate meaningfully in it (it’s significant that so much of the Blues Brothers band consists of members of the famously integrated Booker T and the MGs). This is most of what I think about The Blues Brothers most of the time (although god knows I’m wide open to discussion on all of this).
*it’s worth noting, too, that one of the Blues Brothers’ engines for humor is the sort of fish-out-of-water bit where Jake and Elwood don’t entirely fit in with Black culture but also tend to stick out like sore thumbs in any white-dominated space the movie puts them in.
But on the other hand: it does change things to know that Aykroyd and Belushi performed as The Blues Brothers before the movie came out. Because if Jake and Elwood were raised by Cab Calloway, Aykroyd and Belushi sure weren’t. And the live album they released, well, it doesn’t do a lot to make the case that coked-up enthusiasm is enough for a couple of white guys to participate in this corner of Black culture. The Brothers’ musical number in the movie sounds pretty good, but they provide a surprisingly small amount of the music for an eponymous musical; contrasting the movie with Briefcase Full of Blues, you really see how smart it was to cut their contributions back and give more musical time to Brown and Franklin and Calloway. A lot of that open-heartedness I was praising earlier looks a lot differently if you’ve got a couple of rich and famous white guys just sort of declaring themselves accredited soul musicians and riding that declaration through a tour, an album, and a movie.
I dunno. Maybe the movie has a better vibe because good sense prevailed; or maybe they just got lucky and wrote it in a better way. It might be that historical memory is simplifying the context as time goes on. The movie endures, but I don’t know how many people younger than me (and I’m certainly not young) remember that it was an SNL skit or have heard Briefcase Full of Blues. If the potentially problematic parts get forgotten and the movie turns into a standalone thing* with a pretty chill agenda (a couple of them, even! This movie hates cops and Nazis!) maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
*If we’re forgetting things, we can also throw Blues Brothers 2000 into the memory hole.
I promised some theology, too, but we’ve already gone pretty long here, so let me leave you with this: next time you watch The Blues Brothers, ask yourself (setting aside the boring answer of “because the plot needed it to be that way”) if the Blues Brothers perform miracles in the movie because God is directly helping them, or if they’re just spurred on to perform miracles on their own because they *believe* God is with them since they’re on a divine mission. I’m not a religious person, but I think there’s some interesting stuff here about how believing in something can empower people.
Oh, and also, and unrelated to anything else: Carrie Fisher absolutely rules in this movie.