Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Gospel According to the Blues Brothers : A Film Review

Jake and Elwood Blues, brothers and questionable musicians believe they have been chosen, that they have been given a mission from God. In order to save the orphanage they grew up in from closing down they have to raise five thousand dollars. The only honest path is by doing one last concert. Unfortunately their band has parted ways and through often questionable means they gather their once potent rhythm and blues band. However, Jake and Elwood's contempt for authority and moral deficiencies cause them to be noticed by the authorities and other malcontents. Including a mystery woman with an arsenal of automatic weapons.

Great Music, Flawed Direction, Million Dollar Budget
The Blues Brothers is an ode to the great rhythm and blues music of the pervious century. James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Cab Calloway and John Lee Hooker are all in this movie and the movie respects and honours them. At the core this is a musical and it uses songs such as “The Peter Gunn theme”, “Hold on I'm Comming”, “Soothe Me” and “She caught the Katy” in the place of a written score. Apart from sound effects there is little incidental music that is not part of a song with the possible exception of the Hallelujah moment at the Triple Rock. Most scenes have a song or songs chosen to highlight the emotion, the pacing, or the guest stars former hit song. The songs performed on the screen are framed in such a way that they appear like music video clips. “Old Landmark”, “Think”, “Shake a Tail-feather”and “Everybody needs somebody to love” all come out of the story but they are not like the literally sung dialogue of a musical. The songs are used more like playlist that sits within the movie deliberately chosen. Like Moulin Rouge uses songs, but not in the literal way Baz Luhrmann applies them.

There is an episodic structure to this movie and the scenes flow quickly form one to the other. Jake and Elwood were created when Ackroyd and Belushi were regular members on the comedy show Saturday Night Live. This was also Ackroyd's first screen play and the first draft was 324 page script, it was presented to John Landis bound in a telephone directory. (Kenny, 1998 : np.). Ackroyd's tome was cut down by Landis so that the only backstory involves Jake and Elwood's childhood in the orphanage, it being the catalyst which causes all the mayhem that follows. The shortness of scenes could also be due to the acting ability of the band members and special guests. The scenes with the band members are often not as crisp as other actors, though great musicians, they are not the best when delivering lines. Each episode brings the band together, introduces a guest performer, reveals another stumbling block or enemy, as it builds to the great and disastrous and comical finale. Followed by the punishment of Jake and Elwood by the state for the abuses civil and criminal made in completing this mission from God.

The Blues Brothers looks as if it was shot on a shoe string budget with all the money having been spent on stunts and car crashes. There are rough transitions between spoken lines and recorded songs like Aretha Franklin's final “THINK!” which is not part of the recorded song. The reason it is different is because Aretha never sings songs the same way twice (Kenny, 1998 : np.). Janet Maslin's review describes the scene with Aretha as “ill-directed”(Maslin, 1980 : np) due to the poor editing and the questionable direction of having Blue Lou stand on the counter, so you only see his legs (Maslin, 1980 : np). Continuity flaws such as Elwood's increased back lighting in the initial introduction of the two brothers at the start have never been corrected. In the church scene you can clearly see Jake and Elwood arms crossed at the back of the church, when, in the scene before they were dancing. Maslin is in shock that such a sloppy movie that cost thirty million dollars to make (Maslin, 1980 : np). Landis in the making of documentary is unapologetic for all of these flaws, it appears that the cult status has affirmed his flawed cinematic and directorial direction (Kenny, 1998 : np.).

Cult Status : Glorious Incoherence
The scathing reviews did not stop this movie from becoming a cult favourite. Fans gleefully appear at regular screenings dressed up as Jake and Elwood, singing the songs and dancing along. Like the Rocky Horror Show there has been an added dimension as a community develops around the movie encouraged by the public involvement creating a “carnival of fan participation” (Fiske, 1992 : 41). A movie that was initially a flop can become cult because of the “self-consciousness of film cultism” the collaboration between the movie and the audience goes above the limitations and flaws of the film (Mathijs & Sexton, 2011 :224). Umberto Eco's classification of cult pretty much defines The Blues Brothers and the reason why it has so many fans.
“To become cult, a movie should not display a central idea but many. It should not exhibit a coherent philosophy of composition. It must live on in and because of its glorious incoherence.” (Eco, 1985 : 4)
The Blues Brothers has not been re-edited with CGI like the original Star Wars movies and to do so would stain the “glorious incoherence”(Eco, 1985 : 4) in which this movie was made. It would also go against the spirit of Joliet Jake Blues to gussy up this movie with re-edits and CGI corrections. Like the scratchy sound of a vinyl record the Blues Brothers is embellished and accepted because of its flaws. The ethos of the blues as a music for the poor that is honest and raw is communicated boldly. A clean sound and high definition digital cameras with CGI blue screens would only make a movie like this sterile and devoid of the honesty and humour that is shared between the film and its fans. This is probably why “Blues Brothers 2000” was such a flop because it had all of the technology and little of the warmth. But if we accept Umberto Eco's definition “Blues Brothers 2000” could still become a cult classic. In time of course.

The Spirit of the Blues : A glimpse of what is to come
For Jake and Elwood home is the basement of the orphanage with Curtis, the Soul Food Cafe is more their style than the Chez Paul where Mister Fabulous is the maĆ®tre d'. Apart from the police those who Jake and Elwood rub up the wrong way are often snobs and racists. The unfamiliar in this movie are the clean and decent places where 'good society' exist. In contrast the blues is sung joyfully in the face of poverty and struggle. Stephen J. Nichols in “Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us about Suffering and Salvation” gives us an insight of the blues as a sneak peak of the future eschaton.
The blues is an eschatology precisely in this sense of an everyday apocalypse. The blues is the struggle for the new world to come of age, the struggle to catch a glimpse of that new world to come.” (Nichols, 2008 : 167)
Whether it the Soul Food Cafe, Ray's Music Exchange or the Triple Rock where Reverend Cleophus James sings of Heaven and Hell music is the balm that soothes the hard life. Even in gaol there is song as Jake, Elwood and the band play to their fellow inmates as the screws watch on and smile as the whole cell block dances. And where there is the blues there is hope and in some of these places are the pictures of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Robert Kennedy hanging proudly.

Theology of the Blues Brothers : God is for the weak
There are many obvious references to theology and religion within the Blues Brothers. There is the opening scene of the second coming of Jake Blues emerging from the tomb of Joliet Prison. The main gates open as the dawning sun streams through silhouetting the small black suited figure of Jake. Emerging from the tomb Jake's release evokes Lazarus being resurrected returning from death to the embrace of his family. Jake is free of the bonds that held him, well the bonds that the state of Illinois placed on him. As is clearly shown Jake is still bound to other chains that give God many opportunities to work miraculously.
Deuteronomy 10:18 speaks of the importance of care for orphans, widows and strangers. Christopher Wright in “Old Testament Ethics for the People of God” expands on the use and failure of Israel in following out this command of YHWH. It was the abuse of the weak and poor that the prophets protested about in the time of the kings. The care of the weak was supposed to be carried out by those in leadership (Wright, 2004 : 303). The mission that Jake and Elwood are called to is the outworking of Deuteronomy 10:18. Saint Helen of the Blessed Shroud Orphanage is a place of refuge for not just the children. Sister Mary Stigmata's place is in jeopardy, but, being sent to the missions is light when compared to Otis. “What's one old nigger to the board of education”(Landis, 1980 : np.) laments Otis as the orphanage is his only refuge. The Church as Elwood points out is supposed to pay for the Orphanage but is selling the building to the board of education.

Injustice, oppression, monarchical rule, centralised power, wealth and land ownership these were the hallmarks of those who followed the Baal's (Jeyaraj,147:2008). If God is truly worshiped and obeyed the society will show it. It will be one the defends the poor, the weak, that welcomes the stranger, that fights against injustice and oppression. (Wright, 2004: 59). This difference between the life lived in diversity and harmony and the deadness of 'good society' is shown in contrasts. The comparison between the wooden and static office of Sister Mary Stigmata to the Triple Rock is stark. Life is found where people are living together, vibrant and alive unlike the dead plants, icons, statues and figurines of Jesus, Mary and the saints. The arrogant snobbery of the customers at the Chez Paul and hollow chants of the Nazi's are nothing but clanging gongs and crashing cymbals. They pale against the soul filled 'boom boom boom boom' of John Lee Hooker and the mixed community dancing around Ray's Music Exchange. An IOU is accepted reluctantly by Ray of Ray's Music Exchange where one hundred dollars owed after a nights entertainment is hunted down with guns and a posse by Bob of Bob's Country Bunker.

In the course of the movie the issues of colour and race are highlighted. Tucker McElroy lead singer of the Good Ole' Boys spits out the name Stine in intimidation and quite possible thinking 'kyke'. Nigger is used by Otis lamenting that the powers are little concerned about one old black man. The entire colour at the Chez Paul is affluent and white (despite the fact that the Mr Rizzoli on the phone could be mafia). In contrast even Hassidic Diamond Merchants are fed at the Soul Food Cafe. Of course racism is taken to the extreme with the Illinois Nazi Party. They, like the Good Ole Boys and the Chez Paul customers are taken to task by Jake and Elwood as they become God's instruments of justice that humiliate the proud and the rich. This is the result of the mission from God as those who live life practicing oppression, hate and abuse are ridiculed. The police and state troopers are merely doing their jobs and are involved because God uses the foolish things of this world. The earthen jars in which his Spirit lives are not perfect but in the process of being transformed. And for Jake and Elwood there is much transformation to come.

Jesus and Paul Elements
While there is Jesus as an icon he is static and unmoving where what is dynamic is the spirit of the blues. The fire in the belly and the light that like Paul on the Road to Damascus reveals the mission that God has to save the Orphanage. The Spirit 'falls' on Jake and he does see the light to solve the problems of his childhood home. Enthused by the mission and given purpose Jake and Elwood set off to bring the band back together. But there are old foes lurking in the distance. Mystery Woman (Carrie Fischer) and Burton Mercer the Parole Officer (John Candy) are there to bring trouble. In this movie the deus ex machina regularly conspires so that the plans of one foe ruin the actions of both. For Paul the Jews and pagan groups worked together to have Paul arrested. Jesus also had plots against him, and like Jesus and Paul, Jake and Elwood continue on their way as the plans of others are used by God to further his mission.

For Jake and Elwood their sermon on the mount takes place at the Palace Hotel Ballroom on Lake Wazzapamani. The sermon is mostly sung but the opening address by Elwood sums up the sentiment clearly.
We're so glad to see so many of you lovely people here tonight, and we would especially like to welcome all the representatives of Illinois' law enforcement community who have chosen to join us
in the palace hotel ballroom at this time. We do sincerely hope you'll all enjoy the show, and please remember people, that no matter who you are, and what you do to live, thrive and survive, there're still some things that make us all the same. You, me them, everybody, everybody.”
(Landis, 1980 : np.)
Now this is not the great commandment to love the Lord your God and love your neighbour as yourself, but, it does call to the common need of all human beings for love. In the case of “Everybody needs somebody to love” this love is eros and not agape and does fall short of any divine message of love. Yet for those who are able to see the revelation of love required for all as a gift from God. Then this is a good message.

In the concert at the Palace Hotel Ballroom we see the band and the brothers playing in front of all who have come to hear them. And like Jesus at the temple there are those who have come to capture, arrest and kill them. The Good Ole' Boys and Bob are there along with the troopers who have been trying to get them from the start, but, it is Burton Mercer who sticks out. Mercer is quite the fan of Jake and Elwood and has an appreciation despite being part of the legal system. There is something of Herod in Mercer as played by John Candy. There is a playful tone, but one that is a mask for the power that he wields. Similar to the Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar, Mercer wants to see Jake and Elwood perform before he does anything. Herod did not get anything out of Jesus and Mercer does not catch Jake or Elwood, he ends up in a truck before the brothers make it to Chicago.

As they begin to set off on the last trip the 'Blues Mobile' will ever make Elwood sums up the situation.
It's 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark... and we're wearing sunglasses.” (Landis, 1980 : np.) 
In Luke 9:51-40 Jesus turns toward Jerusalem knowing what is to come. That the plans of the Pharisees will come to fruition and He will be arrested and crucified to bring the salvation required (Schreiner, 2008 : 270). Knowing full well that a great number of representatives of Illinois law enforcement community are waiting for them Jake and Elwood set off for the Cook County Assessors Office. Even as they begin their journey before they have reached their destination arrest seems inevitable. Comparing the road of sorrow and grief that Jesus walked to his crucifixion to the high speed chase through the streets of Chicago could be considered a bit low brow but the comparisons are there. Like Jesus there is no other result than capture. The final scene and closing credits show Jake, Elwood and the Band in prison singing to their fellow inmates. As the creed states Jesus descends to hell, like Jake and Elwood, Jesus is among the captives the Son of God in solidarity with his fellow human beings (von Balthasar, 2005 : 149). In solidarity Jake, Elwood and the Band play the obvious “Jail House Rock” and in solidarity of the apocalypse that the blues glimpses, everybody dances.

The Blues Brothers is a self-indulgent shout out to the beloved musical genre of men with enough money and influence to make it happen. Janet Maslin's scathing critique is just and true, if all we are looking for is a movie that ticks all the boxes. It became a cult movie because of the shambolic mismatch of humour, nostalgia, love and spirit it contains. The foundation of this movie is more than an art form but an expression of hope and joy in face of struggle, looking forward to a future to come. This future is leaked out in the miracles enabling Jake and Elwood to save those that no one cares for but God. They leave Sister Mary Stigmata's office thieves with bad attitudes and filthy mouths and they are the same at the end. Restoration is a promise glimpsed in the music, transformation is possible, but, one day it will all be redeemed and restored.


Eco, U. (1985). "Casablanca": Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage. SubStance, (47)14, 3-12.

Fiske, J.(1992). The Cultural Economy of Fandom. In L. A. Lewis (ed.). The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media.(pp 37-42). NY : Routledge.

Jeyaraj, J.B. (2008). Religion and Politics in Ancient Israel and Modern India - Issues and Inter-Actions. Evangelical Review of Theology. (32)2: 136-155.

Maslin, J. (1980).The Blues Brothers (1980). 'BLUES BROTHERS'--BELUSHI AND AYKROYD
In NewYork Times (1980/06/20) Available Internet: ( (25th October 2012).

Mathijs, E. and Sexton, J. (2011). Cult Cinema. Chichester, West Sussex, UK : Wiley-Blackwell

Nichols, S.J. (2008). Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us about Suffering and Salvation. Grand Rapids, MI : Brazos Press

Schreiner, T. R. (2008). New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids : MI
von Balthasar, H. U. (2005) Mysterium Paschale : The Mystery of Easter (2nd ed.) USA: Ignatius Press

Weiss, R.K. (Producer), & Landis, J. (Director & Writer). (1980). The Blues Brothers[DVD]. Los Angeles, California, USA : Universal Pictures.

Wright, C.J.H. (2004). Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. Inter-Varsity Press. Leicester: England.

Kenny, J.M. (Producer, Director & Writer). (1998). The Stories Behind the making of 'The Blues Brothers' [DVD]. Los Angeles, California, USA : Universal Pictures.

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