Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Blues Brothers

by Phil     

     About halfway into The Blues Brothers, long after the movie's first iconic chase scene in which the unflinching titular brothers lead a few cop cars on a blissfully destructive romp through a suburban mall (during open hours, of course), we are treated to a thunderous and nasty street performance of "Boom, Boom" by John Lee Hooker. Sure, we've heard that song in about a dozen cheesy car commercials by now, but here, through the film's grainy, coked-out, late 1970s lens, it's gritty as hell. Hooker growls his lines as his backing band stutters and stops at a feverish pace, while dozens of passersby and street merchants haggle over their dirty ass wares. Shot on location (as was much of the film) at Chicago's famed Maxwell Street Market, this particular sequence makes it feel more like a documentary than an action comedy. So by the time the Brothers -- who at this point have been party to the destruction of not only a mall but also a flophouse and a Nazi rally -- roll up the street to stir up some shit, it becomes quite clear just how big and authentic this movie's balls are: very.
     It certainly takes balls that big to package all of this movie's silly shit into a grand, unified statement; and they manage to pull it off. Pissing off local authorities, bigots, blue-bloods, and rednecks, the Brothers -- fiercely loyal only to each other, to their band, and to their God-given mission -- deadpan their way through the film; leaving a massive path of destruction in their wake, and breaking a few hearts along the way. All throughout, we see countless examples of the abject poverty in which our Brothers seem to thrive: their seedy flophouse where they cook toast on an electric radiator, the highfalutin fancy-pants restaurant where they clearly do not belong, the musical instruments that are loaned to them by a man who seems resigned to the fact that he'll never get paid. These characters are downtrodden, plain and simple, and are pursued relentlessly by law enforcement seemingly the world over. But you never once feel sorry for them. You identify with them and root for them. Why? Because fuck the police, that's why. Somehow, director John Landis and writer Dan Aykroyd managed to craft a perfect anti-authoritarian statement out of what is ostensibly an old Keystone Cops silly chase, peppered liberally with some late-night comedy, and a few of the finest musical performances ever intended for cinema.
     Now to that last point, I mean, I'll admit: there probably aren't many films on this list that have several extended and fully choreographed musical numbers. But this movie knows what the hell it's doing with them. For example, in an early sequence, when Belushi's character has a crisis of faith and is in need of a raucous gospel sermon to quite literally show him the light, who better than the Hon. Reverend Drugged-out Sex-fiend James Brown to deliver the goods? And then there's Arethra Franklin's number in which the Motown diva -- whose signature song has her demanding respect -- soulfully but unsuccessfully warns her man not to leave her sorry ass to join the Brothers' band. And let's not forget about Cab Calloway's hoary rendition of "Minnie the Moocher." So OK, the film may be filled with musical numbers, but it's the freakin' BLUES we're talking about; it's gritty and everyone feels bad. And somehow it's hilarious.
     And still, if that's not enough for you, just wait for the last ten or fifteen minutes of this thing. You'll see dozens upon dozens of cop cars crashing into each other with reckless, reckless, reckless abandon. And remember: because it was made well before computers ruined action movies, they really did have to crash all those fucking cars. They had to. That final chase sequence is still, to this day, one of the most dangerous-feeling moments in film history. Enjoy it.

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