Joe’s $1-a-week cinema #12: The Blues Brothers
The Blues Brothers, 1980. Spoiler alert: Marriages don’t always work out.
There is something about The Blues Brothers that is at once reassuringly wholesome and wildly decadent. It’s a bit like having a home cooked meal and then having sex with your cousin.
It begins as all good movies – and Hildebrand family stories – do, with somebody getting out of jail.* The person in question is of course Jake Blues, who exits a prison in suburban Chicago to be picked up by his brother Elwood Blues. It is at this point that some credit should be given to the parents of these two gentlemen, as had they not both had the surname “Blues” it is unlikely this movie would ever have been made.
Appropriately enough Elwood picks up his brother in a police car, which is remarked upon by Jake as unusual but was in fact the fashion of the time. Indeed, blues musicians are still being picked up in police cars to this very day, except that nowadays they call blues musicians “rugby league players” and call police cars “Charmyne Palavi”.
A number of timeless lines follow, including Jake’s request that Elwood fix the cigarette lighter, but they are too numerous to go into here. Suffice to say that the cigarette lighter never did get fixed.
From the discussions that take place the film quickly establishes its overarching theme of social dislocation, touchingly encapsulated in Jake’s query as to why none of the band contacted him in jail, to which Elwood responds: “They’re not the kind of guys that write letters.” Again there is a clear cut and powerful commentary on NRL players, who are likewise not the kind of guys that write letters, nor the kind of guys that read letters, nor indeed the kind of guys that read. This is an often overlooked subtext of the film, no doubt because of some Jewish conspiracy.
After an appropriate amount of divine intervention, including some inspirational words from James Brown (who prior to being a wife basher had pursued a career in soul music), the two brothers embark upon a mission to reunite their rhythm and blues outfit. The first house call produces this delightful exchange:
Landlady: “Are you boys the police?”
Elwood: “No ma’am. We’re musicians.”
I have no doubt that this quote is the most exquisite and all-encompassing metaphor for life in general, although I am not yet entirely sure why.
Over the next hour and a bit the film goes on to establish some important historical connections between multi-car pile-ups and what was to become known as “the Chicago sound”. More importantly it established the image of Jake’s abandoned bride Carrie Fisher being thrown in the mud – which I, no doubt like thousands of other eight-year-olds across the world, found strangely erotic.
Indeed, it was this vision that consumed me as we drove home from my first ever viewing of the Blues Brothers at Melbourne’s Valhalla cinema some 25 years ago. It was an extraordinary spectacle, with hundreds of people all dressed up in black suits, hats and sunglasses and a select few even being allowed to act out the scenes in front of the giant movie screen. They even had the original Bluesmobile, a maroon kind of Cadillac, parked out the front, with the word “Bluesmobile” painted on the side for novices like me.
I remember the tatty red-brown leather of the chairs in the stalls and the idea that I had come to a place that was unspeakably exciting, foreign and new. Back in those days it played at 11.30pm every Friday night. It was something of a cultural institution and like all cultural institutions it eventually shut down, packed up and moved on. The Valhalla disappeared from there and soon from anywhere, another great forgotten shame in this country’s short history.
I had gone there with my father and his mistress, for reasons I was both excited by and did not understand at the time. While we did not dress up as Blues Brothers, we did manage to all wear the same blue and white checked shirts as some kind of concession to the magnitude of the occasion. Upon arriving home I related to my mother, with youthful exuberance, the adventure that had been had, including my privilege of having been allowed to ride in the back tray of the mistress’s Leyland Moke – naturally underneath a blanket so as to avoid legal detection. This last was of some concern to my mother, who felt that perhaps having a small child bouncing around in an uncovered metal box for 30 kilometres was not the best form of on-road protection. I emphatically assured her that it was perfectly safe, which as an eight-year-old I was obviously qualified to judge, but I still remember the issue being raised.
Interestingly, years later my father was to become something of a pedant for road safety and was to again make himself unpopular with the maternal relations for refusing to take home a number of children from a family disaster, citing a lack of seat belts. My kindly placid uncle, in an unprecedented and hitherto unrepeated display of manliness, instructed him otherwise and so the deed was done. Still, both decisions go some way to explaining why my father never had a career in politics.
But even with all that I cannot find it possible to remember that evening at the Valhalla as anything less than magical, no matter how close I came to death. It showed me the rhythm, the music and the colour of the city, the peculiar eroticism of Carrie Fisher, and the danger of small decisions in the deep, dark night.
*I am of course using some poetic licence. Usually Hildebrands go in the other direction.
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