Who would have thought a genial comedy, 40 years old, would be so thoroughly refracted by current events? Whatever one might have expected from a first viewing of The Blues Brothers, it wasn’t that it would uncomfortably mirror what is happening in Britain and America right now.
But consider this: at various points in The Blues Brothers, you see cars driven through groups of pedestrians (including, at one point, a group of anti-fascist demonstrators); you see a big city police force responding to provocation with ultra-violence, and the military on the streets of Chicago; you see a far-right figurehead assuring the world his is “an organisation of decent, law abiding white folks, just like you”; and you see the African-American experience appropriated and repackaged as entertainment for a white audience. A month ago, none of that might have registered all that hard with me; right now it made watching The Blues Brothers a disorienting experience.
It’s worth remembering, perhaps, that cultural appropriation was not so much of a sin when The Blues Brothers was made in 1980. Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi were absolutely sincere in their love of the blues, and they fought for the legends who made cameos to have speaking roles, given to Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway and Ray Charles. On the other hand, though, it’s discomfiting to see John Lee Hooker playing Boom Boom for black people in the street, while Aykroyd and Belushi – who was, let’s be honest, a moderate pub singer – play R&B to a big theatre full of white people at the gig they put on to raise money for their old orphanage. Though one might well argue: well, isn’t that exactly what happened to the blues 20 years or so earlier?
But judge The Blues Brothers on its own terms, not as an illustration of the politics of race, rather as a comedy. Aykroyd and Belushi? Comic legends! John Landis? One of the most interesting American comedy directors of his era. So why didn’t I laugh? Because Aykroyd’s labour-of-love script (rejigged by Landis) neglected to put in actual jokes. It has a great deal of ridiculousness, and physical goofing, and situations exaggerated to preposterous extremes. Just not jokes. I’d assumed the line I’d heard quoted most often – “No, ma’am, we’re musicians” – came at the end of some bravura riff, not that it was a single response to a single question. That isn’t a joke. Nor is saying – “We’re on a mission from God” – every few minutes.
There is no internal logic: you suspect Aykroyd et al thought it was hilarious to have Carrie Fisher popping up over and over trying to kill Belushi, but it feels lazy, as if changing the pace and direction of the film was beyond the actors and script, and could only be done by bringing in a murder attempt, never to be mentioned again. It’s self-indulgent, rather than funny, which is to be expected from a film that was filmed amid a blizzard of cocaine, and which was a spin-off of a spin-off – from Saturday Night Live, to an album, to a film.
Still, The Blues Brothers moves quickly enough that it doesn’t have the chance to bore, and it has occasional moments of brilliance. A bunch of those, naturally, come from the special guests’ musical performances. Ray Charles, especially, is fantastic, with a bracing rendition of Shake Your Tail Feather, backed by The Blues Brothers band (an incredible collection of soul and R&B sidemen, who could probably make me sound tolerable).
Most compelling, though, is the portrayal of Chicago. The film was, at least in part, conceived as a love letter to the city, and was filmed on location. It opens with a jaw-dropping aerial shot of the heavy industry of the city’s south side, a Blakean panorama of dark Satanic mills, a world corrupted by humanity. The street scenes – like those of so many location-shot movies (think of The French Connection) – are compellingly grimy. In those sections, and those sections alone, the film manages to find the poetry in the city it hymns, especially in the big song-and-dance routines.
It’s a product of its time, of course. But I have to confess I’ve never fathomed the appeal of US comedy of that era. Perhaps it was only never having seen The Blues Brothers that made me think it might be different. I wish it had been. But I am fully prepared to accept it’s my particular taste that meant I watched it stony-faced. I’m sure, though, it won’t lead me to track down Animal House. Maybe you just had to be there.