The Blues Brothers
Bad boys make movie

by Doug Eisenstark

from Jump Cut, no. 23, Oct. 1980, pp. 1, 31
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1980, 2005

"This pattern of whites obtaining a disproportionate share of whatever fitful recognition the Establishment is willing to bestow on jazz is anything but a new one. Regardless of the almost exclusive creation of the music by Negroes, they have never been the ones to reap the most lucrative returns. In the 1930's it was Benny Goodman, instead of Duke Ellington or Count Basie, who grew wealthy on the craze for swing music; and two decades later it was Goodman and his some-time drummer Gene Krupa who had movies made out of their lives — not Ellington nor Basie, not Jo Jones nor Lionel Hampton…"
— Frank Kofsky, Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music

"You own the music and we make it." — Archie Shepp

Chicago is a Blues Town. In fact, it is the blues city of the world. J.B. Hutto, Junior Wells, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Albert Collins, Sunnyland Slim, Rev. Malcolm Simmons, Eddie Clearwater and other talented and internationally famed musicians can be counted on to get Chicago through its sweltering summers and its arctic winters. Home of record labels such as Delmark, Alligator, Spoonful, Rooster, Earwig, Airway, and the now defunct Chess, the Windy City has been responsible for recording some of the most important artists of American culture. When black musicians came to the industrial North from the southern United States in the 1940s and 50s, they put pickups on their guitars, plugged in and created the distinct electric South Side Blues Sound now known the world over. At over 100 clubs, Chicago is getting down every night at Theresa's on the South Side, John Brims Broadway Nightclub on the North Side, and neighborhood clubs on the West Side, and is spending big bucks on Lincoln Avenue at a row of white-owned establishments. And in Chicago this means Blues.

But in Chicago as everywhere else in America, African-American art forms, culture and lives have been ghettoized so that the economics of a relatively affluent white audience influences accessibility to the recording and radio industry for the artist. The dependence on the mainstream culture is evident where musicians hope for work in the more powerful white-owned clubs in order to earn a decent wage. There they must perform to the expectations of a white club owner, who may sanitize the usual sets into a concert which puts less demands on the middle class audience and helps to sell more drinks. Black club owners may do well in their own community but will rarely, unless they have a "reputation" for white acceptance, draw many more affluent whites to their clubs. Also, it took the civil rights movement for many jazz and blues clubs to be integrated. Segregated nightclubs had black artists playing to black patrons seated in the back.

There is the chance that a rock and roll group will record a song by a blues artist. The popular white boogie band, J. Geils, can record a song by a black musician and years later when the rights have cleared, send him or her a check for $20,000. Such money is chicken feed in the multi-billion dollar recording industry, but in a single mail delivery it can exceed the lifetime recording income for important black artists. Many white musicians are aware of and sensitive to the creators of rock and roll, and they will deliberately record songs by older artists so that the older musicians may receive some benefit from high album sales. In the mid-sixties, one political rock group, Steppenwolf, demanded a contract that put a black artist on the same bill with them as they toured. More recently, Professor Longhair, the legendary New Orleans pianist, was to tour with The Clash, a politicized English punk group, but he died days before the British band got to America. Similarly, Bonnie Raitt often tours with the great blues singer, Sippie Wallace.

A chance to perform on a high budget tour allows an artist such as John Lee Hooker, who toured with Steppenwolf and is in THE BLUES BROTHERS, to travel with the luxury that white stars often take for granted. Such a tour also means the opportunity to play to a mass audience with more record buying power than ever could be hoped for on the nightclub circuit. While many artists are able to earn a decent living through domestic concerts, most blues and jazz musicians hope to find gigs in Europe where the appreciation is higher, the money better, and racism not as widespread. Until African Americans have economic stability and cultural autonomy, black artists must all too often rely on small record producers and the economic/political structures of the bourgeois communications industry in order that their art may be heard.

What can we expect from THE BLUES BROTHERS given the complexities of the existing communications networks and the ideology generally transmitted by film in this racist society? [1] Perhaps the musical artists in THE BLUES BROTHERS have done well in this multi-million dollar production. On Hollywood's terms, these black giants' appearance can be seen as a symbol of success for black culture in general. Probably, the limited financial return for THE BLUES BROTHERS comes, at least in part, from audiences hungry for filmed images of these, their, stars. It is satisfying to know that Ray Charles' scene alone cost one-third of a million dollars. Aretha Franklin has her first film role and she comes out shining. I only wish that Aretha, Charles, Cab Callaway, James Brown and John Lee Hooker could have had more than just one song apiece. Indeed, that they could have had the entire production to themselves. While we applaud the individual triumphs of these superstar artists, we must hold the Hollywood system accountable for the fact that it has taken James Brown twenty-five years to make it to a feature film, Aretha, fifteen years and John Lee Hooker, forty, while Belushi and Aykroyd have gained a high level of production control after only a few years on a television show.

None of the musical sequences were recorded live (nor edited particularly well), which denies black music its function as performance — constantly contemporary, improvisational and experimental to ensure a constant interplay between the superficial boundaries of artist and audience. In the tradition of the naturalistic musical, each of the musical scenes tries to place itself within an appropriate context and complement the action or plot. The musical numbers in THE BLUES BROTHERS are then satisfying only to the degree that they mirror and mimic the mainstream images of the 1950's Hollywood productions and to a certain extent, commercial television advertising.

Aretha Franklin's scene works best. Her song seems to leap from the movie like a welcome quarter in a silent jukebox. Set in Aretha's and Matt "Guitar" Murphy's diner, her back-up vocalists are three younger women who swing around and up to the screen on the diner's counter stools. Aretha's presence is always captivating on record, and her previously untapped acting potentials make her a likely candidate for larger roles in future films.

Cab Calloway has been acting in films for years, and his parts in the film give a much-needed professional's touch. He sings only one song in the film, and that one is in the setting of his grand days as a bandleader in the big band era. His song comes as a filler for the tardy Jake and Elwood, who are late getting to the plush ballroom. In real life, Cab Calloway can fill any concert hall in the world, yet here he is shown only as a diversion for the restless crowd.

Of the artists portrayed in THE BLUES BROTHERS, John Lee Hooker plays the most rural music, though to my mind, he's the most avant-garde. His short presence is sandwiched in among documentary style shots of the Maxwell Street market area in Chicago, where many musicians still gather to play on Sunday mornings. Hooker's music deserves to be felt with a slow patience to do justice to his long hypnotic improvisational blues.

Elsewhere, Ray Charles plays the middle-aged owner of a pawnshop. Although he is blind, he still manages to keep an "eye" on the merchandise none the less. When the piano player complains that the electric piano that Charles has is no good, Ray sits down at it and whips out a number that reminds us that he has done more to revolutionize the rhythm and blues form than anyone else.

It is the film's first musical sequence, by James Brown, that points to how THE BLUES BROTHERS treats the live musical segments described above and how the style of filmic production undercuts the importance of music to black culture. James Brown plays a preacher in a black Christian church. The music is badly dubbed and the congregation is edited out of sync with it. The attempt to enhance the scene through lighting and fancy camera angles makes the immediacy of gospel music and the congregation's involvement a mockery of what actually occurs in a service. Although we see glimpses of Brown in inspired dancing, he looks uncomfortable and ill at ease, perhaps because he feels the music being lost in the limitations of high production values cast in the mold of a glorified Dick Clark's Bandstand. James Brown, once the popular essence of black pride, is made safe — off the streets and in the church (or else in a Hollywood sound studio). [2]

There is one central band in the film, the Blues Brothers Band, which encapsulates the films whole ideology. Although Aykroyd and Belushi do a good imitation of being "soulful" and their backup band gives a try at funk, all in all it's rather lukewarm stuff. This band wouldn't do too well on the chittlin circuit that many blues artists have to deal with. But of course with their connections and access to the mainstream industry, Belushi and Aykroyd do not have to prove themselves to an audience and can pull together an all-star band and record in top-notch facilities almost immediately. Although the Blues Brothers Band contains some of the industry's most successful studio musicians and the legendary Matt Murphy, one wonders about the commitment to blues music. Indeed the band is seen enjoying itself most by doing country and western music in a so-called redneck bar. (They open that country set with "Stand by Your Man.")

THE BLUES BROTHERS fails to address itself to the integral linkage between black music and black culture. It can fail to do this in two ways: by what is included, how filmic material is presented; and secondly, by what is excluded, thus giving a narrow context to what is on the screen. First, the songs presented are set within the parameters of what white people (i.e. Belushi and Aykroyd) would perceive should they choose to move through black ghetto culture. [3] It may be simplistic but necessary to state that blacks have been denied artistic control, through exclusion, from the film's major roles: producer (Bernie Brillstein), director (John Landis), writers (John Landis and Dan Aykroyd) and main actors (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd). This means that the film will, as a matter of course, be a reflection of the filters, distortions and censures that bourgeois ideology and bourgeois demands place on blacks. Because African Americans have rarely been portrayed accurately in mainstream film, the form of THE BLUES BROTHERS, its making music subservient to the production demands of visual style, leads to a built-in selectivity and a double coding that distorts the foundation of musical arts in African American culture.

There could be a sociological reasoning to certain exclusionary practices of THE BLUES BROTHERS, since it limits the music to forms that were radical and inventive twenty years ago. After WW2, there has been a free and mutual exchange between the civil rights and black consciousness movements and the members of the black artistic community. Musicians such as Max Roach, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Abbey Lincoln, Archie Shepp and Rhasaan Roland Kirk found that they were able to use their talents in politicizing the black ghettos and the consciousnesses of an entire generation of black musicians. The names of Malcolm X and John Coltrane have become synonymous and linked with the possibilities of black politics and cultural freedom or, put more directly and accurately, black nationalism. While THE BLUES BROTHERS sets itself in 1979, it wishes to revert to 1960 white American consciousness. This denies and excludes the images and sounds of the fruits of black (and white) anti-racist class struggle.

THE BLUES BROTHERS has the pretext of being about the blues, yet the movie does what it can to avoid the actual concerns and realities of musicians in this culture. While the film is funny in part and will help to sell rhythm and blues records, it further mystifies matters by being primarily preoccupied with the adolescent fantasies of its two stars.

THE BLUES BROTHERS starts as Jake (John Belushi) is released from prison. It is a funny scene for all its mock seriousness as it quickly breaks down into an amalgamation of prison movie shots and editing. Jake emerges through the prison gates like the alien from the space ship in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and is met and embraced by Elwood (Dan Aykroyd). They wear matching knuckle tattoos, black hats, suits and shades and are clearly best friends. Although their embrace is tender and romanticized, it quickly becomes obvious that they haven't matured past an adolescent male bonding.

Jake and Elwood never have a kind word for each other and rely on a mutual, imagined understanding that defies adult conversation. [4] Jake and Elwood Blues were raised in an orphanage by a nun, whom they call The Penguin and for whom they still have a childish contempt. The scene with her is shot first as a Saturday Night Live skit and then as a parody/homage [5] to the religious horror film. With the orphanage in financial trouble, Jake offers to raise the money to save it from bankruptcy and so redeem himself in the eyes of The Penguin. Elwood thinks Jake is crazy to even try.

Cab Calloway plays the orphanage janitor who lives in the basement of the building. It is from him that Jake and Elwood have obtained their "fatherly" support and values. He suggests that the two will lose their skepticism and doubts about being able to raise the money if they visit Reverend Cleoptius James (James Brown) church. There Jake and Elwood are converted and the two, now on a "mission from God," re-form the Blues Brothers Band. After borrowing all the instruments and amplifiers they need from a pawnshop owner (Ray Charles), the band plays a gig at a country and western bar where they become enemies with some "red-neck" musicians. The country musicians, along with a police squad car, which had stopped Jake and Elwood earlier for speeding, and finally a local Nazi leader, chase the two around Chicago and the Illinois countryside. The Blues Brothers promote a benefit concert (for themselves) and acquire a huge concert hall for a night. Although by means of the concert they are able to raise the money in time to save the orphanage, the entire band ends up in prison, presumably for the damage done in the many games of car football.

While THE BLUES BROTHERS may take a somewhat progressive stance in its depiction of the Nazis as fools and clowns, the attitude towards women is clearly reactionary and misogynist. Four women have speaking parts: The Penguin, Aretha Franklin, Twiggy, and Jake's ex-fiancé. The last (Carrie Fisher) is seen throughout the film as a mystery woman intent on killing Jake. As a joke on her STAR WARS role, she fires with bazookas and flamethrowers on Jake and Elwood (who are inseparable throughout the film). Unfortunately she always seems to miss by enough to let the two walk away unscathed and unruffled. Towards the end of the movie we find out why: Jake had dodged their wedding ceremony and disappeared. As she and Jake seem to reconcile in a kiss, he literally throws her to the ground and then splits with Elwood.

Twiggy appears for a few minutes to provide a romantic counterpart for Elwood. He sets up a date with her and then he too leaves the woman waiting in vain. In both cases the women exist only to confirm the men's characters as sexual persons (heterosexual) and as misogynist (not homosexual). Apparently the filmmakers could handle sexuality only through the male characters' repressed actions and thus deny sexual identity to the women except as fetishized object. Jake and Elwood retain their bonded friendship and their immature purity because, as the film suggests, they are too cool to let a woman come between them.

Jake and Elwood urge the guitar player (Matt Murphy) to quit the restaurant he runs with his wife (Aretha Franklin) and join the band for an uncertain future. His role in the diner's kitchen and in marriage is shown as demeaning and restrictive. The two fight (while Jake and Elwood watch) over his joining the band. The dishwasher, a white long-haired saxophone player, is afraid to leave and cowers in front of Aretha before she sends him off with the others. Aretha as the Black Superwoman will have to deal with the restaurant by herself. The flight of her husband is just the opposite of the realities of the economic demands of this racist and sexist society, as he moves away from relative economic stability to a chosen poverty situation.

If THE BLUES BROTHERS has a manifestly cruel attitude toward women, it has a well-intentioned and patronizingly racist relation to blacks. Jake and Elwood must get the guitar player playing again (and as a matter of course break up his marriage) as though black folks just couldn't handle that sort of thing. When Jake and Elwood visit the church, their conversion is a parody. Belushi is shown in a corny, optically printed "light," and then his stuntman does gymnastic exercises down the center aisle when Reverend Cleophus James cries out, "Have you seen the Light?" The scene has no meaning except to justify Jake and Elwood's quest and legitimize the two to move through black culture and to use as they will one of its expressions, blues music.

Belushi and Aykroyd clearly see themselves as "liberators," championing the charities of their choice: the struggling musician, the over-55-MPH drivers, the hen-pecked husband, and the anti-racist sentiments of the country. Thus Jake originally went to prison for stealing, not out for "individual" economic need, but for trying to pay off his friends' debts. The film is effective in poking fun at white middle-class and upper-class culture, with the destruction of a shopping mall and the disruption of an upper-crust restaurant. For Chicago audiences, in particular, the roster of the city's famous and not-so-famous landmarks make an attractive, if somewhat confused, guided tour.

But Chicago is a segregated city (like many), and the racial and class conflicts that mark the life of its citizens must be seen as the result of capitalism and profiteering and not as differences to be transcended through the ruling class' individual choice. By setting the brothers as children without parents, the film hopes to conveniently circumvent the issues of class and family socialization. Although this is easily enough done, the so-called "charisma" that Jake and Elwood employ also come from the class privilege of a white skin. The fantasies of a pawnshop owner lending out equipment or an honorary rental of an expensive concert hall or a $5,000 cash up-front record deal (no contract) [6] — indeed, the entire idea of raising that amount of money in a week, which is the film's time span — become only halfway believable when perpetrated by two white men. Such fantasies in the hands and the hearts of blacks would still be regarded as clearly dangerous and a threat to racist America.

Walking down State Street after the afternoon matinee at the Chicago Theater, an instant spaciness hit me. The silliness I had just seen on screen had no relation to the shoppers, the portable radios singing walking disco ballads, the bullhorn preachers, and the record stores incense and strobe lights. I remember that neither Jake nor Elwood ever once smiled while they played their music, and I'm reminded that a locally-produced movie, STONEY ISLAND, used the same plot as THE BLUES BROTHERS, the same neo-realist narrative, but was never widely accepted or distributed. I flash to the actual death of the main character from that film a year ago and am reminded of the many great musicians in this town who will never be heard or get a chance to reach a wide audience. I remember the $29 million budget of THE BLUES BROTHERS and the economic and political structure which has ghettoized an entire people and then ripped off what it finds appropriate in the culture. I turn west on Monroe Street, shaking my head slightly and recall that Chicago is a very Blues City.


1. There have, of course, been many films featuring jazz and blues musicians, both documentaries (of Leadbelly, for example) and productions which utilize vignettes that dramatize songs. Almost forty years before THE BLUES BROTHERS, Cab Calloway appeared with Lena Home, Bill Robinson and Fats Waller in STORMY WEATHER. Black musicians who have successfully made the transition to acting in film include Cab Calloway, Lena Horne and, of course, the great Paul Robeson. In recent years there have been a number of documentaries of older blues musicians. Also check out the film, MINGUS, a documentary of the late jazz composer and musician, and the fictional feature, Larry Clark's PASSING THROUGH.

2. The problem does not just lie in the poor handling of the technical aspects of editing, etc., but rather in the director's decision that the music is best "controlled" rather than left to stand on its own. This lack of trust in live music as it was meant to be perhaps reflects the ethnocentricity of those of European roots who control the means of musical production. In THE HARDER THEY COME, Ivan (Jimmy Cliff) is shown in a studio deeply involved in his music, only to be interrupted by the capitalist record producer.

3. A more successful film set in Chicago, COOLEY HIGH, can use music in a more natural way because the jukebox music is both a constant component of the background sounds of the young blacks portrayed and because the songs themselves arise out of the realities of black culture.

4. If any of ray fellow European-Americans think that Jake and Elwood's mumblings are reflective of ghetto street cool, see Warrington Hudlin's STREET CORNER STORIES, which shows the blues form to be a musical expansion of black speech.

5. It would take a full-fledged film buff quite some time to run through all the references to other movies in THE BLUES BROTHERS. There are parts which seem to come from SINGING IN THE RAIN, while a segment with the Nazis reminded me of FLUBBER. One police chase scene was lifted from the more modest COOLEY HIGH. John Landis had his directorial debut in KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, which consisted of mimicking television programming. SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, where Belushi and Aykroyd achieved their national exposure, builds its scripts on comic reversals — on what audiences expect from film and television plots.

6. Ivan in THE HARDER THEY COME is offered twenty dollars for his already recorded hit song. He steals the master recording and distributes the record himself.