Friday, February 05, 2010

God's Mission: Flying Negroes and Car Crashes

by Odienator
(for all posts, go here)

Coming out of the State Theater after some chop-socky flick, my eye was caught by a poster featuring several upside down police cars and two men in black standing atop them. I recognized the guys from Saturday Night Live. They sang soul songs and danced funny. “I want to see that!” I said to my aunt. “Will you take us? “Maybe you can go with your cousin,” she said. “I don’t care for car chase movies.” How could she dislike them? I thought. Nothing was cooler to this incarnation of me than car chases and explosions. I’d been weaned on them with movies like Grand Theft Auto, Smokey and the Bandit, Eat My Dust and plenty of others. My aunt’s suggestion that I go with my cousins made perfect sense until I looked down in the left hand corner of the poster to find the letter I dreaded most.

No movie for you, kid! You ain't 17!

While I currently have no problems with this letter rating, this story takes place in 1980. I was well under 17, and unlike the Googleplexes we have now, back then they had ushers to enforce the ratings. My slightly older cousins and I attended movies together without adult supervision, but unless we went with another cousin who looked much older than she was, we weren’t getting into an R-rated feature. The film on the poster wasn’t her kind of picture either. She only liked horror movies, especially gruesome ones like The Fury or Dawn of the Dead. My heart sank. I guess I’d have to wait until it comes on TV, and then it would be “edited for television.” Even worse, if it said “Parental Discretion Advised,” there was no way my Mom was going to let me watch it, chopped up or not.

A few weeks later, a male cousin and I went to see something G-rated. We bought our tickets and hoped the feature we purchased would be in the nicer upstairs theater rather than one of the two crappy downstairs theaters at the State Triplex. It wasn’t. What was in the upstairs theater was the movie I saw on the poster, The Blues Brothers. The usher’s stand was in a place where he could see all three doors for the theaters. He ripped our tickets and pointed us to the farthest door on our level. We started walking down to the door when the usher suddenly left his post.

“Psst!” my cousin said to me. “Come with me!”

We started walking toward the door to the upstairs theater. “Hurry up!” he said to me. I moved faster. We opened the door and slid behind it, then walked up the stairs as quickly as possible. “What are we doing?!” I asked him.

“We’re sneaking in!” he whispered. “I want to see this movie!”

I was terrified, but I was also hooked. This was the first time I’d ever snuck into a movie, but it wouldn’t be my last. In fact, I snuck into The Blues Brothers three more times. I’m proud to say, in my heyday, I was only caught once sneaking into an R-rated movie, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas in 1982. It wasn’t worth it. All they showed in that movie was one titty and a bunch of singing naked guys’ asses. What’s that saying? One titty is too few and three are too many? And I could see a guy’s ass at home, in the mirror.

The Blues Brothers has no nudity at all. Not that I cared: I was 10. I had something better than nekkid people: I had soul singers, people whose records were played nonstop in my house. James Brown was in this movie! Ray Charles was too! And the Heidi-ho man! And Aretha Franklin! Plus, there were so many cars being destroyed that I couldn’t breathe. Either somebody was singing or somebody was crashing, and we didn’t have to wait long for either. Had they somehow managed to have Ray Charles driving and singing at the same time (while crashing), my heart might have exploded.

John Landis loves Black culture. He’s fascinated by us, and that fascination led him to direct the Blackest movie ever made, Coming to America. With The Blues Brothers nine years prior, he put in his bid for a ghetto pass, and he got accepted almost as fast as Lisa Stansfield and Teena Marie. Normally, I joke about movies where the Black people teach the White folks Soul(TM), but here, our heroes not only have some soulful talent, but they know to get out of the way when someone more soulful shows up to show them how it’s done. One of the many problems with the dismal sequel, Blues Brothers 2000, is that the movie tried to put some of its characters on the same level as soul legends like Wilson Pickett. Here, there are no duets. Everybody just stands back and lets our soul legends do their thing. The guys dance with the legends, but they leave the singing to the experts.

The Blues Brothers is the best of the Saturday Night Live based films, which is saying very little as most SNL films are terrible. Lumping it into that pile is a disservice. It’s really a superhero origin story crafted with humor and care, and a musical where legends sing and cars have dance numbers. In an awful year for musicals (Xanadu, Can’t Stop the Music,The Apple), The Blues Brothers stood out for NOT succumbing to the disco fashion run rampant at the time.

We meet our protagonists in the film’s opening. Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) waits outside Joliet Prison in Illinois for his brother Jake (John Belushi). Jake is free after doing three out of five years, paroled for good behavior. Our first director cameo is on hand to retrieve the things Jake had when booked for his crime, items which include a black hat, black slacks, a black jacket, sunglasses, one unused prophylactic

and one soiled.

Outside, the brothers reunite. As they drive away, Jake inquires about the 1974 Dodge Monaco police car Elwood is now driving. “What happened to the Cadillac,” he asks. “I sold it…for a microphone,” says Elwood. Jake is still iffy about the car until Elwood shows him its worth by jumping over an opening drawbridge. The car is magic, according to Landis’ comments in the accompanying documentary on the DVD, and our heroes will need that magic later on.

Elwood’s first stop is to the St Helen of the Blessed Shroud Orphanage, their former home. “You promised to see the penguin when you got out,” Elwood reminds him.

This is the penguin, Sister Mary Stigmata.

This ain’t one of those tap dancing penguins from Happy Feet. This penguin specializes in cans of Whup Ass. After she tells her former wards that the orphanage is to be taken over by the Chicago Board of Education unless she can pay $5,000 in taxes, Jake offers to get her the money through sinful means. “I will not take your filthy money!” yells the Penguin (Kathleen Freeman). “Well, I guess you’re up Shit’s Creek,” retorts Jake.

Bad move! Out comes the can of Whup Ass!

The Penguin beats our heroes so thoroughly that Jake falls down the stairs while still in his chair. Then she issues a stern warning to our heroes.

Get out! And don’t come back UNTIL YOU’VE REDEEMED YOURSELVES!!!

At the foot of the stairs is our first legend, Cab Calloway. Calloway plays Curtis, the Blues Brothers’ mentor during their orphanage tenure.

Boys, you got to learn not to talk to nuns that way.

Curtis is dressed just like the Blues Brothers, so we now know to whom their attire pays homage. When Jake asks Curtis if he can appeal to the Board, Curtis says something numerous teachers in my hometown have said: “What’s another broke nigga to the Board of Ed?” Curtis also tells the boys to go down to Rev. Cleophus’ church for advice. When you have a name like Cleophus or Hezekiah or Ezekiel, your lot in this life is cast: You have to go into preaching.

Reverend Cleophus is giving a sermon at his church, and we’re given our second legend, a man whom a certain preacher modeled his hairstyle on: James Brown.

Brown sings a rousing gospel number, with Chaka Khan in the choir, and then, like so many Sundays at my Baptist church, God reaches out and touches somebody, giving them the Holy Ghost. God’s victim in this scene is Jake Blues.

“Do you see the light?” asks Rev. Cleophus.

Elwood has no idea what he’s talking about, but Jake is turning blue. “Do you see the light?!” the good Reverend asks again, and Jake has his epiphany. He’ll get the band back together, and that’s how he’ll save the Penguin’s job. Jake goes backflipping down the church aisle and joins the rousing dance number.

Let’s stop here and examine this number more closely, because I think Jake gets happy in the same way Landis had his epiphany about loving Black culture. This number is different from all the other numbers in the film. It’s recorded live, while every other number is lip-synched. It features professional dancers where all the other numbers have amateurs. It’s the most stylized number in the film. And like the film’s car chases, it is completely over-the-top. How can I put this politely?

This number is filled with flying Negroes.

The Black folks are so filled with de Lawd that they start jumping up to the church’s balcony level from the floor, splitting and flying through the air. Now, this is a church I wanted to go to! In my church, when God got in people’s bodies, they started screaming and falling to the floor as if they were being tasered. Nurses came out and dragged them into the hallway. It was like bombing at the Apollo. When de Lawd got in your ass at Reverend Cleophus’ Triple Rock Church, it was the equivalent of drinking 450 cans of Red Bull. Talk about jubilation and exaltation! I’m getting happy just thinking about it.

Elwood tells Jake the plan will never work, as the band has split up. One guy got married and opened a soul food restaurant with his wife. Another has formed a new band with some of the old band members. Jake remains undeterred because he believes they’re “on a mission from God.” On their way home, the duo are stopped by the cops. The Black cop is familiar to anyone who watched 21 Jump Street. Both cops realize they have a problem with Elwood’s license.

Elwood knows they’ll have a problem, so he takes off. The cops are no match for the magic Bluesmobile and wind up crashing, but not before an insane sequence where an entire mall is demolished. In the days before CGI, they physically destroyed things. Landis says he found an empty mall and had it rebuilt for the sole purpose of destroying it. Right before the chase begins, Landis throws in another Frank Oz cameo, if only visually. A guy holds up a Grover doll, and when the Toys R Us employee asks if he needs anything else, he asks for a Miss Piggy doll.

"They broke my watch!" This cop says

Cops love donuts!

After shaking the cops, Elwood takes his brother to stay at his room in a rundown hotel next to the El. They are met, and not for the last time, by Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher. Without explanation, Fisher pulls out a bazooka and tries to blow Jake and Elwood the hell up. She succeeds only in causing property damage. Jake and Elwood are unfazed, and go upstairs to crash.

“How often do the trains go by?” asks Jake. “So often you won’t notice ‘em,” says Elwood.

Thanks to a detective played by John Candy, 21 Jump Street cop and his partner arrive at Elwood’s hotel the next morning. They needed Candy’s advice because Elwood’s license address is a famous location where only bad luck lives. Just as they are about to enter the building, Princess Leia presses a detonator and blows up the entire building. Had this bitch had this much artillery in Star Wars, the Empire wouldn’t have been able to strike back. Since this is a live action Road Runner movie (with flying Negroes—Nap E. Coyote instead of Wile E. Coyote), our heroes are unhurt.

I’ve got to get to work!

Work for Jake is getting the band back together. Their first stop is a house formerly occupied by Murphy Dunne. The landlady gives Jake a card that helps him find the leader of Murph and the Mellotones, a band that plays to empty rooms at a Holiday Inn. En route, there’s a traffic jam created by the local chapter of the Nazi party.

"The Jew is using the Black as muscle against you, and you are left there helpless? Well, what are you gonna do about it, Whitey?"

“I hate Illinois Nazis,” says Jake. Elwood gets past them by driving them off the bridge with the Bluesmobile.

The Nazis don’t take too kindly to this. “Get that car’s license number,” says the leader (Henry Gibson). Now the Blues Brothers have the Nazis out to get them, if Princess Leia doesn’t get there first.

At the Holiday Inn after a set, Murph’s drummer, Willie Hall, has the conversation every band member Jake and Elwood re-recruit will have:

"So, Jake, you're out, you're free, you're rehabilitated. What's next? What's happenin'? What you gonna do? You got the money you owe us, muthafucka?"

Jake sweet talks Murph’s band, which includes Stax producer, songwriter and musician Steve Cropper, back on the road. Their next stop is to get the Blues Brothers band’s horn player, Mr. Fabulous, back. Unfortunately, the horn player is now the maitre’d at an extremely ritzy restaurant.

"Mayor Daley no longer dines here, sir. He’s dead."

Jake and Elwood make a big spectacle in the restaurant, embarrassing Mr. Fabulous into rejoining the band. Their next stop is also to a restaurant, but this one is more down to Earth. It’s a soul food place where John Lee Hooker sits outside singing

Boom boom boom boom...

and Aretha Franklin takes your order inside.

Elwood orders plain white toast. (Elwood’s obsession with white bread—he even tries toasting it at their next stop—must be a wink to the Black audience.) Jake orders four fried chickens and a Coke. Re thinks both of these guys are crazy.

"We got two honkies out there, dressed like Hasidic diamond merchants."

Her husband, Matt Murphy, hears the order and knows who it is immediately. He runs out, along with band saxophonist Blue Lou Marini, to greet his old friends. When he introduces them to Re, she says “The Blues Brothers? Shit! They still owe you money!” But Matt wants to stop slinging hash and run off with the band. This leads Re to sing that song 3rd Base sampled for The Gas Face, Think.

After the song, Matt thinks, then leaves with the band. Blue Lou, who had been purposely decapitated by the director’s framing during the musical number, gets his head back below frame and runs off with the band too. “Shit!” says Re. (The TV print has her say “Shoot.”)

The next stop is to get musical equipment for the band. Everyone goes to Ray’s Music Store. The Ray in the title is Jamie Foxx, I mean Ray Charles. Charles navigates his store flawlessly despite being blind, and even prevents a young man from stealing a guitar by accurately shooting at him.

In the theater, I ducked when Brother Ray pulled that gun, then I laughed for a good minute and a half.

When keyboard player Murph plays a few notes on an organ, he says it’s not worth the price Ray’s quoting. (“Two thousand dollars, and I’ll throw in the black keys for free.”) Murph complains that it’s out of tune. The proprietor of Ray’s sits down and shows him that “the piyana” is just fine. Outside of Ray’s hundreds of people follow Ray’s lyrical advice and start shaking their asses.

They need to, as they are dressed in summer clothing and, according to Landis’ commentary, it’s 25 degrees outside. Note that guy in the right hand corner looks ready to grab that woman's ass!

Meanwhile, the Nazis run the Bluesmobile’s license plate and get the same information the cops do, plus a tad more. “His name is Elwood Blues,” an underling reports to the head Nazi. “He’s got a record a mile long. And he’s a Catholic!” Head Nazi gets his group and rushes down to Elwood’s listed address at 1060 West Addison. They realize they’ve been tricked.

I told you nothing lived there but bad luck.

The Nazis swear revenge, and the band swears Jake is full of shit when no gig materializes. Sensing they need to do something quickly to keep the band happy, Jake decides to call an old booking agent of his. As soon as he steps into the phone booth, conveniently located next to an enormous propane tank, Princess Leia shows up with a flame thrower. She blows up the tank, sending the phone booth flying into the air as if it were filled with Bill and Ted. Of course, our heroes survive AND they have a shitload of dimes to steal.

Jake maneuvers his way into a redneck bar that’s so rough the stage has chicken wire around it. He pretends to be The Good Ole Boys, a C&W band. Elwood is leery of the venue. “What kind of music do you play here?” he asks the bartender.

"Oh we have both kinds: Country AND Western."

The band’s original music goes over badly until Elwood gets the bright idea to sing the theme from Rawhide and Stand By Your Man.

They’re a hit, but they drank more alcohol than their take for the evening will cover. They have to make a hasty escape, trailed by the real Good Ole Boys. Unfortunately for the Good Ole Boys, 21 Jump Street cop is waiting behind a billboard and, when he sees the familiar Dodge Monaco, comes flying out in his cruiser just in time to cream the Good Ole Boys’ truck.

This is the billboard. Once again, Landis works in his signature phrase.

Realizing that they’re running out of time, Jake and Elwood meet up with the old booking agent in a steam room. The booking agent is played by Steve Lawrence.

Guys, I am way before your time.

Without consulting Eydie, Steve books the Blues Brothers in a venue that will allow them to earn the money needed to save the orphanage. Jake and Elwood go into promotion mode, driving around and advertising with a huge megaphone on top of the Bluesmobile. The orphans and Curtis post fliers all over the neighborhood and even Rev. Cleophus and Ray put up signs.

He can fire a gun with precision but can’t tell which way is up.

The Blues Brothers send the band on, as they know the cops are gunning for them. Their plan is to sneak into the venue. After the venue fills up, and the leads are still not there, the band gets nervous and thinks they’ve been stood up. Suddenly, Curtis asks “Do you know Minnie the Moocher?” Murph responds “I once knew a hooker named Minnie Mazola!” “No,” says Curtis, “the song!” Steve Cropper says “yeah, so?” Curtis says “Hit it” and turns into a 1940’s version of the actor playing him. Cab sings his signature song, decked out in white, with the band in orchestra mode and the audience (both in the film and in my theater) providing the response to Cab’s call of “Heidi-Heidi-Heidi-Hi.”

The number gives Jake and Elwood enough time to sneak into the theater, but not before it’s filled with cops waiting to arrest them once the set is over. Jake and Elwood do a good cover of Solomon Burke’s Everybody Needs Somebody To Love and also Sweet Home Chicago. The audience goes wild. As they slip backstage to plan an escape, they meet a record producer. He wants to record them and offers them $10,000 in cash as a downpayment. Jake takes $5,000 and tells the producer to split the money with the band and Ray for the equipment. The record producer has another useful feature in this plot. When asked “Do you know a back way out of here?” he replies

"Sure, I used to be head bouncer here back in the 70’s."

Jake and Elwood use the escape route, but guess who’s there? Yup, Princess Leia. Now she’s got a gun. After peppering the general area with bullets, Elwood asks the question we’ve been asking all movie:

“Who is that girl?!”

We discover she’s a scorned lover of Jake’s, a woman he left at the altar, presumably when he got arrested. Jake charms her and the duo get away.

Could you say no to this face?

Had he done this earlier in the film, the property damage would have been lessened. Now in the Bluesmobile, Elwood sums up their plan to save the orphanage.

“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.”

“Hit It,” says Jake. And they’re off, pursued by numerous Chicago cops all 106 miles.

Dispatcher: Use of unnecessary violence in the apprehension of the Blues Brothers has been approved.

Once in the city limits, the cops are joined by the Army and a SWAT team that can’t stop saying “hut hut hut!” Along the way, there are numerous car crashes on the streets of Chicago and under the El. It’s almost like the French Connection chase sequence times ten. There are so many cars and people it’s a wonder how Landis and company filmed it all.

Lest I forget the Nazis are also chasing our heroes. Unfortunately for them, their Ford Pinto is not magic. Landis explains that, to film the Nazis’ ultimate fate, they actually dropped a Ford Pinto from the height you see in the film.

As they are falling to their deaths, the driver tells the Head Nazi "I've always loved you."

The Bluesmobile drives through city buildings and, once it gets to its destination, it dies a spectacular death.

Elwood has little time to mourn, as they must deposit the money in the clerk’s office before closing time. While they barricade the door and take an interminable elevator ride to the 11th floor, the cops, SWAT and the military break in and try to reach their quarry.

On the 11th floor, we are introduced to the director playing the Cook County clerk. You can figure out who it is for yourself, but I found it amusing that it looks like he’s eating a tuna fish sandwich.

Who am I?

Our boys make it in time to save the orphanage. And they learn the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

The last scene in the Blues Brothers is the band in jail singing Elvis Presley’s ode to prison lovin’, Jailhouse Rock. They’re joined on Leiber and Stoller’s lyrics by James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and the crew of the movie during the credits.

Landis says that it was easy to get the musical legends in the film because “unfortunately, many of them were not working at the time.” Franklin is in the documentary stating that the film gave her access to audiences that didn’t know her music beforehand, and there is some legitimacy to Landis’ claim that the film rejuvenated several careers. Legendary musicians like Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn were also given coverage outside their roles as members of Stax’s band or SNL’s house band (Lou Marini’s sax is prominent on many seasons of SNL).

The Blues Brothers turns 30 this year, but the reason I chose it is because it’s one of those movies I’ve enjoyed ever since I was a kid. I never looked at it as some White attempt to steal soul music (which is what I think of The Commitments, a movie I could never sit through despite reading Roddy Doyle’s trilogy of books); I see it as John Landis putting the music he loved on the screen, done primarily by the singers and musicians who played it originally. And even the almost 40 year old incarnation of me loves car crashes as much as his 10 year old version.

Your homework assignment:

Avoid the sequel, but dial 634-5789 and see if Wilson Pickett answers the phone. God help you if he does.

Used to be that if you asked for Babs, you got in free. Don't try that shit nowadays!


Steven Boone said...

Odie, its as if you are writing some of these just for me. The Blues Brothers is probably the only movie I watched on cable more times than The Empire Strikes Back. You wanna know how black, how powerful was John Landis? One night in the early 80s Isabel Sanford showed up to a party at our next door neighbor's house. Turned out she was our neighbor's cousin. My mother rushed back to tell my older siblings and I to come get a Polaroid with Weezy. We were awestruck. Black Royalty in our neighborhood. But The Blues Brothers was coming on, on a double-bill with 1941. I refused to miss even a minute of Blues (and risk missing the Flying Nergoes Sequence) for even the chance to hear Weezy's melodious rasp in person. (Before VCRs it was easier to tell the rabidly devoted from the casual viewer.) Anyhow, thank you for highlighting something I'd forgotten: how brilliantly the deadpan dialogue complements the deadpan Roadrunner visuals. I picture a Criterion BB disc including this essay.

Steven Boone said...

Also, your stills capture the classic Landis touch perfectly. In his prime, he put up clean, punchy comic book frames and cut them together with an ace standup's timing. Dude understood that much of screen comedy is wide shots.

odienator said...

Boone: its as if you are writing some of these just for me.

For whom else would I push myself deeper into the fires of Hell by equating getting the Holy Ghost with getting booed off the stage at Showtime at the Apollo?

Ali Arikan said...

I've been so busy this past two days(Odie - email forthcoming on my imminent US trips in March and April), and have not managed to check the MUmf, and I do so now, and what do I see? This, and a Cosby Show post! I am writing this before I read the updates, but, man, just seeing the subjects, and the headlines therefor, makes me smile!

February is my favourite time for blogs, I know that for sure!

(BTW, the word verification for this post is "Subactis." Isn't that the name of Ozymandias' cat in "Watchmen?")