Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Blues Brothers: Second thoughts

About a month ago, I asked the lovely posters of the RPGnet forums to recommend movies and TV shows and even books and video games for me to experience for the first time. This was a massive oversight, since I forgot the most important thing of all.

Music.

Here's a movie that knocks it out of the park. I can see why I never saw this growing up; the humor is far too crass for my grandparents and there's ludicrous violence and destruction, too. But forget all that, because the musical performances rock my socks off. Figuratively speaking, of course, since my socks have been most decidedly rocked off for several weeks now due to casts and whatnot, but you get my point. The lady who sings Respect was in this movie and hot damn she's got pipes to her. There was a blind man jamming out on the piano so hard that he made an entire street dance. An old black fella flooded a packed theatre with magical realism on the strength of his performance of the slinkiest, slyest, coolest jazz bit I think I've ever heard.

I put off writing this second thoughts post because I wasn't sure how I wanted to approach the movie. When I had that problem with Ladyhawke, it was for completely different reasons relating to ice cream being good and Ladyhawke being not equivalent to ice cream. Here, it's the question of how I pull together the sort of comedy adventure plot, the magic realism, and of course the music. I guess I'll get my favorite part out of the way first so that I can sit back and try to talk about the movie from a more objective perspective.

Shut up, Very Recent Past Jeremy. I'm talking now, and I'm talking musical performances that rocked the foundations of the earth and told them to get a new groove going. HOLY SMOKES the music in this. I was enjoying myself with the fantastic church group performance, thinking it might have been a one-off, and then of course Murph and the Mediocrity played a bit of something and that was background noise. But forget all that when we go streetside with Jake and Elwood to where an old man's bringing down the vervest of verve, the groovest of groove, and he's not even part of the story, really! Instead we duck into a diner to meet a man with an instrument in his name and get blasted with vocals by his wife, who sings like a train's about to run her over and she's going to have it fuck off and go back to mama, thank you very much. Objectively, I'm sure that's not one of her best numbers, because it's kind of repetitive, but I was completely incapable of noticing that on the first go-round because who the hell cares when you've got that powerful instrument rocking the house?

So then we get this charming old blind fella (with a gun, someone take that away from him please) and what might be the most "dance" dance number ever, with a new dance every few seconds or so. Shake your tail feathers indeed. Here's a man whose voice isn't rich or sonorous or brassy - it's just the voice of honest, joyful music banged out with friends, for friends, and what a privilege to feel like that for a moment. The man is an enchantment. Speaking of sorcery, I'm going to skip over the Bob's Country Badtasteinmusic numbers and go right ahead to good gravy where has this sort of music been hiding out in my life??? Old Curtis gets a crowd of young impatient people trying to keep up with a torrent of jazz scat that I couldn't even begin to follow apart from "Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-hi." I just picture a foggy nightclub with those yellow sodium bulbs and a thick smell of smoke, where people dress sexy and sit like they don't know you're looking at them. I could almost taste that wonderful atmosphere, just from the sound of the music. To have it worked into the comedic little sneak bit was just the cherry on top.

Which leads me to, of course, the actual performance of the Blues Brothers. I'm not counting Bob's Country Bozos, because while the first number was groovy there wasn't much to it and the second number was kind of nauseating. Also it didn't seem to fit their vocals at all... was it written for a male singer, or a lady? The point I'm trying to make is that the Blues Brothers themselves didn't feel that was one of their own performances, and of course those numbers don't hold a candle to the actual performance at the Palace. That first "everybody" song kicks an impatient, skeptical crowd into action before the first bridge and gets everyone on their feet and I would have been with them if I could have. Jake has this raw, completely unmusical voice that somehow just knocks the tune right out of the park, and Elwood's little baritone interjections color it nicely before he picks it up with the harmonica. I could have watched a whole movie that was just the concert. Actually, if I were directing the movie, I would have used the concert to sort of frame the rest of the action, and taken the numbers being performed to use as background music or played through radios or whatever, so that we could have both experiences simultaneously. And more music. :D

The last number (not counting Jailhouse Rock) I don't even remember the name of but I remember a lot of sweet sweet instrumental groove, and they also cut off the stage for a moment with exactly the kind of thing I was talking about, where they get the money from the big fellow. This one had more vocal harmonies, brassier horn riffs and a piano that walked around like it owned the town. All in all I'm sad this one gets filed under Standalone Movies just because I want more of the band than I got. Five numbers (sort of) just isn't enough, and this kind of music is like... sex, a cold beer, a plate of ribs and those great kind of fries that taste like they were made for ketchup. It's like a comfortable leather chair that reclines, and the room is dark wood paneling, and a nice breeze is coming through from a well-lit city skyline so that even though the day's warm, you're not sweating. Nothing to sweat about. Groove. Verve. Get down with your awesome self. I'm not gonna stop you.

I get the feeling that this is already one of the longest second thoughts posts I've written and I'm NOT EVEN AT THE ACTUAL MOVIE YET. HOLY BALLS THIS MOVIE.

I would have written a lot of the events off as the broad excesses of comedy, if it weren't for Curtis's big number clueing me in that what I was experiencing was magical realism. I don't know that my English profs would agree with me there, but I don't know of another way to describe it. What happens in the movie isn't surreal, it's just sort of... bigger than logic. I'm sure that a great deal of that is merely broad, comic exaggeration, but as a method of framing this holy quest narrative it works to show why "the band" is the solution to their problem - the world becomes steadily more surreal as they follow the quest and unite the band, of whom Jake says that none had more fun in their lives than when they played with the Blues Brothers. Is it all some statement about how much more interesting and adventurous and large-scale our lives seem when we're with people we like doing something we love? Almost certainly not, this is a big old fashioned comic romp, but what it plays out as is the world getting increasingly bigger than real with the addition of a bit of music in the soul. Once divinely touched, Jake and Elwood start experiencing undamaging lethal attacks from a psycho ex who knows where to find him, impossible escapes through shopping malls, the improbable night-long delaying of the bad whose gig they steal, a backflipping car, the world's most ludicrous cop chase... karma basically bends around them to hand them what they need while ensuring doom most preposterous to their enemies, who end up in the drink, in a truck and in an IMPACT CRATER. Their allies include Curtis, whose raw musical charisma transforms a knock-together show into a glossy white big band; Ray, whose talents enchant a whole street of people into dancing; the Reverend, who is capable of actually calling down divine inspiration (or something close to it); a bizarrely friendly cop with a taste for jazz and orange whip; and of course, the band, a group of people who answer the call to leave normalcy at the door. The only one to try and fend them off is Mister Fabulous, and even he doesn't seriously consider the obvious solution to call the cops on them because he wants back on the road. Sure they all bellyache about it when things get started, but I notice that even when Curtis revealed that they weren't getting paid for the Palace gig, not a man among them said another word about it.

If Jake's the one touched with divine inspiration, then Elwood sort of feels like he's in it on his brother's behalf. The light never touches him, after all. He tells his boss that he's going to become a priest, and he is in a way - an apostle of music, following at the side of the mad visionary who's determined to put his band back together in defense of a higher cause. The orphanage isn't just a residence, after all, it's a way of being raised - it's Curtis and his music, like the old man tells the children. What they're trying to save is, in a sense, the music itself - for the next generation of orphans, for the members of the band who lost their way and need to get the groove back, and for the audience (I sure as hell feel saved by the awesome). It's Elwood who always says the "mission from God" line, to the point that it's almost an excuse for the crazy things that are about to happen next, his personal passport to the mad musical karma cruise that is Jake's big quest. At the end, the magical realism comes back in the form of the opposition - a force of law greater than that which armed terrorists would provoke swarms to the attack, rushing in with destructive force and overkill levels of manpower to take down the Blues boys. Given that their countdown is on, the chase feels like a metaphor for running out of time - the power of the law is sweeping toward them and they have to keep ahead of it if they are to succeed. That final stamp, with the handcuffs that end the ride and bring them back to reality (sort of), is the discharging of the divine mantle that was put upon them, the confirmation and proof that for a week and a bit, these boys caught lightning and filled people's souls with it right out of the Blue. S.

Anyway, lest I risk overanalyzing this movie even more, I'm going to rest here. This was quite obviously a ridiculously awesome experience and is now floating near the top of my favorite movies list. A heartfelt thank you to everyone who felt I should get to have this music, these laughs in my life.

32 comments:

  1. Excellent review, on many levels. You should do this for a living.

    (Mental note, if it hasn't been recommended already, you should add 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' to your list of movies. It's a Coen Brothers movie...which is a whole set of movies I feel has been overlooked in the recommendations made so far, but it's set in the 1930s and is a Depression Era Homeric Odyssey of a movie, rich with the music of the time.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The Big Lebowski is on his list. And while that's certainly the cultiest of the Coen Bros' movies, I'm not sure it's the best introduction to them...I would have recommended he started with Raising Arizona or maybe True Grit. But hey! You really can't go wrong with the Coens, and yes, Jeremy, if you're reading this, you should check 'em all out!

      Delete
  2. Time to ask the RPGnet folks (and anyone else, for that matter) for music you need to experience, just to play in the background over the course of the day. Evidently, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway and James Brown are gonna be on that list.

    Just about every musician out there will be the subject of a free playlist or several on YouTube, or maybe a channel on Pandora, so why not immerse yourself in a different singer/band each day?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Add John Lee Hooker (the random guy playing in the street) to your list of musical divinity in this movie.

      Delete
    2. He's my favorite, and he doesn't even *do* anything. The guy is a blues giant, and they brought him into the movie to just sit there with his guitar and *be* John Lee Hooker for two minutes -- and he delivers.

      Delete
  3. Hey, the theme from Rawhide was special to me. I first heard it in a VHS tape of The Super Mario Brothers Super Show, from back when it still had the song covers. That's how I recognized it in a Star Trek novel I read. I still haven't watched the actual show Rawhide, though.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's hard to be nomadic, when there's no automatic/Retirement pension after sixty-five...

      Delete
  4. "All in all I'm sad this one gets filed under Standalone Movies just because I want more of the band than I got."

    Yes, but, well, I don't think anyone was very pleased with Blues Brothers 2000.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. How did they manage to mess up a sequel to this? :(

      Delete
    2. The main thing is that the actor who played Jake died in the 80's. The replacement is good at what he does (as a new character, not Jake)...but it isn't the same. Also, the script stank. I say this as a die-hard, lifelong Blues Brothers fan.

      Blues Brothers was groundbreaking for a comedy, both in terms of structure and budget. No one had ever done those things before. Twenty years later, a lot of the tropes were tired.

      For the music, once you can travel a bit, check around for a House of Blues near you. That's a music club chain owned by the actor playing Elwood. Not all the acts are blues/jazz/R&B, but you can catch some greats from time to time. They also put out a great two-cd primer on classic blues with commentary from Elwood about fifteen years ago, so you might be able to find that somewhere.

      Delete
    3. I personally love Blues Brothers 2000. It's definitely not as good, but the music is still utterly fantastic and it has awesome monologues by Elwood.

      Delete
    4. The music in the sequel is great, but adding a kid wasn't a great idea and it's just not the same without Jake Belushi.

      Delete
    5. Oh wow, that's really unfortunate. What happened to him? Cancer? Drugs? Accident?

      Delete
  5. Yes. DON'T see Blues Brothers 2000

    ReplyDelete
  6. Noise, you should hear some Isaac Hayes sometime. Well, you have, since he was the Duke of New York A Number One, but believe it or not, he actually had to reign in his pimpness for that role, as opposed to his music

    ReplyDelete
  7. The few bars of awesome music they played at the Country and Western place before having the power cut, was "Gimme some lovin'" by the Spencer Davis Group, featuring a teenage Steve Winwood on piano and lead vocals: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VxA3atHD2QM Also the backbone of the Blues Brothers band is Booker T and the MGs https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bpS-cOBK6Q

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'll add that the joke of the scene is that the band proceeds to play the only conceivably "country/western" songs they (or anybody) would know-- the theme from "Rawhide" (a '60s TV show) and "Stand By Your Man", which, as Jeremy intuited, is meant to be sung by a woman and was a crossover hit for Tammy Wynette during the CB/trucker-culture fad of the '70s.

      Delete
    2. The best contrast between a blues bar and a C&W bar was in the movie 48 Hours.

      Jeremy - you need to move "Jaws" and "The Godfather" to the top of your list. Most of the movies you've reviewed so far are in my all-time top ten list.

      Delete
    3. Jaws is on the Next Up list already. I'm sure they'll give me the other one soon if it's good. :D

      Delete
    4. Godfather has a notorious eye gore moment.

      Delete
  8. Michael StraightJuly 9, 2014 at 2:44 PM

    I've been following this blog since it got linked over on MetaFilter when you were watching the Star Wars movies. I have enjoyed your writing very, very much - both for how well you convey the enthusiasm and joy of watching some of these movies for the first time, and also for your consistently insightful reflections about them.

    I hope you heal quickly and that you continue writing about movies after you have recovered. I'll be here reading as long as you do.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. What is MetaFilter?

      So glad you're enjoying yourself. I am too, obviously :D

      And thanks for the well wishes!

      Delete
  9. Wow, I can finally comment! ;-D I love your writing, and as a result, have gone back to some old movies just to listen to the music. As an old (think grandparent's age) it's nice to have a new take on old stuff. Thank you.

    With this movie, you've stumbled upon some of the finest music the world. I agree with other commenters-- lots of music is available on YouTube, and you can go nuts exploring. Besides the folks you've been introduced to in this movie, I'd add Stevie Ray Vaughn and Eric Clapton to people you'd like to explore. USE HEADPHONES when listening! Don't use the tinny computer speakers. I like SkullCandy; they're inexpensive and have good quality.

    PS. I watched Star Trek when it first came out on TV, and it was revolutionary for the time (and I've watched it over again over the years). But, as you note, it's dated. I suggest you jump to Star Trek The Next Generation, when Gene Roddenberry still had his hand on the helm. The best theme of all the Star Trek series was the one for Voyager. (I like the series, but most don't).

    ReplyDelete
  10. The Blues Brothers did some live performances, if you're interested. You can find some on YouTube.

    ReplyDelete
  11. The music from the mall chase is an instrumental cover of Can't Turn You Loose, originally by Otis Redding. More good music for you to look for.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Have you done any Meyers Briggs personality testing? I get the impression that you're an ENFP.

    If you like the first one, the second Blues Brothers is... Fun, albeit not nearly as good as the first. There are some really fun performances, and some awesome music in that one too. It's a lot of the same, which isn't really a bad thing.

    Did you notice Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia)?

    I see The Big Lebowski is on your list as coming up. I also highly recommend Raising Arizona or O Brother, Where Are Thou before Big Lebowski for your intro to The Coen Brothers.

    Keep up the fun, your reviews and reactions are really enjoyable!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Actually I have, and I am! How did you know?! :D

      I did notice Leia! That was a surprise. Still weird to see Star Wars people outside Star Wars.

      I don't make the list, unfortunately, or I might take you up on your suggestion. I'm sure it will be fine, though. :D

      Delete
  13. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8mq4UT4VnbE

    You might enjoy this video, Jeremy - it's Cab Calloway, who was the old man in the movie, performing Minnie the Moocher in his youth.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Hey, Wonderful Noise if you like the music there is a soundtrack to the movie that is great, and the Blues Brothers also released some live albums (with songs not in the film).

    ReplyDelete
  15. I am so delighted to see you so delighted by this music :) Definitely worth looking for these actors.

    ReplyDelete