Feature Presentation #1 The Blues Brothers
"We're on a mission from God."
The first Feature Presentation of R-Rated Movie Club is The Blues Brothers.
JUST THE BASIC FACTS
The Blues Brothers (1980) | Warner Brothers, Universal Studios
Starring John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin, James Brown
Written by Dan Aykroyd and John Landis | Directed by John Landis
Two-Sentence Version: Two thieves with filthy mouths and bad attitudes try to make amends by saving the orphanage where they grew up through their music. Along the way, they (rightly) mess with Nazis.
Fun Facts: The movie is the first Saturday Night Live-related film project, featuring two actors playing two of their characters, plus several SNL Band members playing themselves. It was filmed on location in and surrounding Chicago, where the Bluesmobile drove 118 MPH under the El train with special permission! If you feel like donating $1 to your local food shelf per crash, allegedly 103 cars were trashed during production.
Why it’s rated R: Swearing. That’s it. Nine F-bombs. 25 shits, many hells and damns. One Black man refers to himself with the N-word, and there’s apparently a background topless pin-up photo in one scene that I never noticed until I watched this in stunning HD on Blu-ray (I certainly never noticed it the 10,000 times I watched it before). This movie came out way before the MPA started adding content descriptors to explain ratings.
Does it earn its R rating? If you’re dead-set against your kids hearing F-bombs mostly played for laughs, this isn’t the movie for you. If you want a good story, great music, funny visuals, memorable characters, and some of the best comedians and musicians of the 20th century in one movie, hopefully you have “seen the light.”
PUT IT IN CONTEXT:
Major Theological Themes: Redemption and repentance, the power of music, loyalty among friends and to the church, honesty and ethics, letting go of the past to make a better future, listening to God, hero’s journey.
If Jesus told this story, it would be called: “The Parable of the Repentant Thieves.”
The book of the Bible where it best fits is: This is a musical, and the Psalms are filled with music, so I could see this story reimagined as a poetic, lyrical Psalm. As a story, it could definitely be a good parable by Jesus. I think it would be in the synoptic gospels. The Matthew or Luke version would be closer to the movie we got. The Mark version would start with The Blues Brothers having already recruited Murph and the Magic-Tones to save time. That said, perhaps Jake and Elwood are the long-lost 13th and 14th disciples and this tale is merely their untold story from a few missing chapters in the Acts of the Apostles while they’re “on a mission from God.”
Most “Biblical” Line of Dialogue: “Yes! Yes! Jesus H. Tap Dancing Christ, I have seen the light!”
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Introduction: My First F-Bomb
It seems only fitting that the first R-rated movie that I write about is also the first R-rated movie I saw. If memory serves me right, I saw The Blues Brothers several times long before I was in Kindergarten. I’ll write more in-depth about my first experience with this movie and other early R-rated movies in my life another day, but for now I can say that there are three movies that I’ve watched at least once or more times per year for nearly forty years now. Two shouldn’t be all that surprising: Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. But the one that surprises people the most is The Blues Brothers. Not because it’s bad (it’s great) and not because kids wouldn’t like it (what’s not to like?), but I think it’s all the swearing. I don’t think anyone pictures a 5-year-old kid sitting there with their family, taking in this exchange:
“You can’t lie to a nun. We gotta go in and visit the Penguin.”
“No. Fucking. Way.” (10:18)
Ah, my first F-bomb! And certainly, not my last.
There’s a lot to write about with a movie where characters state they’re “on a mission from God” no less than five times. After all, what they do “is a holy thing,” and that’s what we’re here to talk about, dear reader. For this first analysis, we’re going to look at the overall “mission from God” plus two specific illustrative scenes.
“Boys, you’ve got to learn not to talk to nuns that way.” (10:30)
“Joliet Jake” Blues (John Belushi) is serving time for sticking up a gas station robbery, a desperate move to pay his blues band’s room service tab after their last gig three years ago. When he makes parole, his brother, Elwood (Dan Ackroyd), picks him up from prison in a (used) police car. Upset that the run-down yet beloved St. Helen’s of the Blessed Shroud orphanage where they grew up is going to be sold, they are determined to raise the $5,000 needed to pay the tax assessment (that’s ~$18,000 in 2023 dollars, if you’re curious). They visit Sister Mary a.k.a. The Penguin (Katherine Freeman) and when she sees they’ve grown into two thieves with filthy mouths and bad attitudes, she declares she “will not take your filthy, stolen money!”
The Penguin rebukes Jake and Elwood with a final command: “Get out! And don’t come back! Until you’ve redeemed yourselves…” I’m reminded of Jesus’s first sermon. It was just one sentence, but it was powerful: “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent, and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15) With her and the orphanage “up shit’s creek,” the Blues Brothers have no other choice but to go straight and earn the money legit. They have eleven days to turn in the money. They’ve got to put the band back together, book the mother of all gigs, it’s dark, and they’re wearing sunglasses.
“Have you seen the light?” (15:55)
After their unsuccessful reunion with the Penguin, Curtis (the immortal Cab Calloway who will at the conclusion of Act II will sing one of his biggest career hits, “Minnie the Moocher”) implores Jake and Elwood to get wise, get to church. At the Triple Rock Baptist Church, they hear powerful preaching from Rev. Cleophus James (the legends keep coming, ‘cause here’s James Brown with 50 studio albums at this point!) that switches from sermon to song. In his sermon, Rev. Cleophus preaches about a vision of people passed away, angry and in chains, seeking a life they can’t find because it’s too late. I’ll be honest, I can’t think of any specific scripture reference for this image; a better Bible scholar than me will have to help you with that.
I do think of Jesus engaging a man named Legion in Mark 5:1-13 and Luke 8:26-33. Legion’s life is overcome by the many demons that prevent him from being in healthy relationships, a man now kept in chains and abandoned as a lost cause, though he is living and not passed away like the vision from Rev. Cleophus. In both cases, however, there is a form of being trapped, of incarceration. These people in the vision are dead and cannot escape their chains. Legion is alive in a graveyard, dead to the world in his living prison. And then there’s Jake, a parolee coming out of the criminal justice system which as an institution is far from perfect and which still brings a plethora of social stigmas with it. The Bible talks about wanting to live your best life now, to turn from sin (hamartia) and make a new way or repent (metanoia). Will we allow those in chains to make a turn? Will we help? This push-pull between two ways of living is at the heart of Jake and Elwood’s story.
Sin is a break in relationship with God, with your neighbor, with yourself and who you’re supposed to be. Jake has no idea how to repent, how to turn. The same day he gets out of prison, he’s upset that his own brother picks him up in a police car. And the same day he gets out of prison, he’s prepared to stick up another gas station and give the money to the church. The ends don’t justify the means. But he doesn’t have other means. He checks his watch during the sermon. Not the only time I’ve seen that, by the way.
He concludes his sermon, “Don’t be lost when your time comes! For the day of the Lord cometh as a thief in the night!” Okay, this one I do know. In Matthew 24:36-44, Jesus warns to “keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” He gives an analogy: a homeowner doesn’t know when a thief comes in the night, so he stays awake so his house isn’t broken into, he remains diligent. Rev. Cleophus James is saying don’t live like it’s too late. Make the change now. I like how he uses this Biblical image of God coming like a thief in the night to Jake, a thief in the church, to open him to what God wants him to see.
“The Old Landmark” is a hymn by Rev. WH Brewster and it’s the first song performed in the #2 film at the box office when it debuted June 6, 1980. You’ve gotta love that. The lyrics hit Jake. “Let us all (all go back!) to the old (old landmark!)” He starts to shake. (“And we’ll stay in the service of the Lord!”) He has a spiritual awakening when something right out of the Bible happens: God shows Jake a vision. Literally, the clouds part, a beam of sunlight shines down to penetrate the church building and descend upon Jake. It recalls Isaiah’s vision to step up as a prophet for God (Isaiah 6:1-13). It has a vibe like the baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:9-11). It makes someone turn from one way to another with a bright, light-filled vision like for Saul who becomes Paul (Acts of the Apostles 9:1-22). This is Jake’s conversion moment. High-energy, very musical, and super blue. We don’t all get gigantic epiphany moments like this in our lives. Our realizations are typically more gradual. Either way, when it comes to learning and growing along the way, step one is be open and step two is to do it.
Not many movies feature God as an active character in them. Maybe it’s not surprising that a 28-year-old Dan Ackroyd, who only around ten years earlier had given serious thought to becoming a priest, would write this. By this point in the film, clearly the pivotal “Hero makes a choice” moment that ends Act One, we’ve already established this is a world of the hyper-real. That plot I wrote about? It’s a ridiculous setup. And it’s so fun. The movie is like a cartoon, but every actor plays their character straight. In this hyper-realistic universe, over-the-top violence, absurd behaviors, and vehicle flips that defy the laws of physics are simply the ways of the world. That makes it ripe for satire, life lessons, and yes, an appearance by the Almighty.
As Elmer Bernstein’s short “God Music” blares trumpets, as a heavenly choir sings “Hallelujah,”as Rev. Cleophus points at him and shouts, “Have you seen the light?!,” Jake does in fact see. He has a vision of how to get the tax money legit: the band. In scripture, figures like Isaiah and Saul seem to have almost immediate conversion moments. People can get rather envious of that today. In the 21st century, a person with even the strongest faith can wonder why they don’t have a beam of light striking them, or a voice from the clouds speaking to them. But that envy (or dubious cynicism?) is misplaced. Those figures have their special moments, just like Jake, yet their journey took them there. They had to go through a lot to get to that moment. Someone like Paul, he didn’t come to relish his time as Saul. Jake’s past keeps catching up with him, from his prison time to his machine gun-toting ex-fiance Mystery Woman (Oh yeah, when you’re a 5-year-old Star Wars fanatic and here comes Princess Leia with an M-16 pointed at the hero, trust me, you’re getting mixed signals here). His epiphany in the narthex of the Triple Rock is just like any epiphany: hard-fought and well-won.
“We’re putting the band back together.” (41:43)
We get three scenes of putting the band back together. They’re all memorable in their own way, and we’ll focus on the Blues Brothers reacquiring trumpet player Alan Rubin, a.k.a. Mr. Fabulous. He’s the top maitre’d at the Chez Paul restaurant, “pulling down six bills a week.” (just over $112,000/year in 2023 dollars, if you’re wondering just how much Mr. Fabulous loves playing trumpet over playing host.) When Jake and Elwood arrive, they clearly don’t fit in. And they clearly don’t care. It’s time for social faux pas at the Chez Paul.
They’re bawdy, they’re rude, they’re offensive. Smelling. I mean, they smell bad. They’re just not the kind of people you eat with, and the other guests are more than glad to say so! As for their eating habits, I can tell you this much: I was not allowed to toss shrimp cocktail and bread to others at the table, no matter how funny it would have been. Perhaps this is my first documented desire to emulate bad behavior in the movies?
Jesus calls his first group of disciples on the beach (Matthew 4:18-22) with this proclamation: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” Jake and Elwood call back the first five members of the band with this assurance: “Me and the Lord… we’ve got an understanding.” (Jake) and “We’re on a mission from God.” (Elwood). Before someone reads my first-ever R-Rated Movie Club essay and shouts out, “Don’t you blaspheme in here! Don’t you blaspheme in here!” I’m not saying Jake and Elwood are saviors equivalent to Jesus. Just pointing out some similarities to putting a band together to serve God.
In the gospels, some disciples’ call stories get a little extra attention, though some get no story at all. Still others have different names, depending on which gospel you read. Later a few of them have expanded scenes, like Thomas in John 20:19-29 (unexplained absence when the resurrected Jesus appears to the other disciples) or Philip in both John 6:1-15 (the feeding of the 5,000) and Acts of the Apostles 8:26-40 (baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch). Maybe that’s a good place to bring up the fun fact that pianist Paul Schaffer wasn’t in the movie though he helped form the original Blues Brothers band. Maybe he couldn’t be in it or wasn’t allowed to be in it or any other way it’s told, I have no real idea. I didn’t know about his involvement until much later, I think not even until after I saw his cameo appearance in the sequel, Blues Brothers 2000. It’s an example of not everyone getting their due until later.
One disciple whose call story gets a little extra attention is Matthew the tax collector (Matthew 9:9-13). No one likes him because he’s in league with Rome and is part of the crippling tax system that keeps the people poor and despondent. Make your own modern-day analogy, I’m not touching that one. Jesus goes to his house to share a meal and the Pharisees, some of the religious teachers of the day, are angry. Frankly, with skimming taxes and working with Rome, he is offensive. Swindling. I mean he swindled bad. They can’t see past his sin, his hamartia, his breaking relationship with God and neighbor and himself. They don’t see a path for repentance, for metanoia, and don’t think Jesus should look for one, either. Jesus says his ministry isn’t about making those who are well feel even better but to heal the sick and bring new life.
I love these scoffing scenes in scripture when Jesus serves up the snooty, always have. At the Chez Paul, Jake and Elwood are both the caller and the fish out of water. They’re calling Mr. Fabulous out of his high paying gig by demonstrating the hypocrisy and classless class warfare of where he’s landed. The other guests don’t like their behavior? The Blues Brothers don’t like their behavior. Mr. Fabulous probably doesn’t either; he goes along with it for the cash. Does he honestly sound all that excited that “The soup is fucking ten dollars”?
$10 soup is $36 soup today, so despite their best efforts, Chez Paul is still more pricey than Panera.
There are three scenes of Jake and Elwood getting the band together. To Murph and the Magic-Tones, Jake appeals to a love of making music: “You were the backbone, the nerve center of a great rhythm and blues band. You can make that live, breathe, and jump again.” At the Soul Food Cafe, when Matt “Guitar” Murphy says don’t talk about the band in front of his wife,Elwood tries the marriage angle: “Ma’am you’ve got to understand, this is a lot bigger than any domestic problems you might be experiencing.” Jake tries the faith angle: “Ma’am, would it make you feel any better if you knew that what we’re asking Matt here to do is a holy thing?” Matt’s decision is from somewhere between the two, is my guess. But Mr. Fabulous is unique.
He rejoins the band because… he’s embarrassed?! Maybe. He knows that when Jake threatens that he and Elwood will come to the restaurant for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day of the week, they mean it. They’re not going to stop. It’s better to go along with them. Yeah, I think for the purposes of the story, it’s about being guilted into picking up his trumpet again. But I also think it’s more than that. He loves the music, too. Jake says “We need your horn.” Maybe Mr. Fabulous knew he meant that just as much as he meant they’d keep coming back to Chez Paul. As soon as he agrees and the Blues Brothers leave, Mr. Fabulous does what he’s never done in this restaurant: he sits. The money has been great. Six bills a week in 1980 dollars. But in all that time he’s served these snooty salad sniffers, he’s not once been invited by a single one of them to join them at their table to overlook the establishment’s board of fare. He’s being invited to a higher calling.
I’m reminded of the rich young ruler who approaches Jesus to make sure he’s doing everything right (Matthew 19:16-30). He already thinks he is, but having Jesus confirm this in front of everybody else will seal the deal. When Jesus challenges him to sell all of his possessions and give the money away to the poor, he walks away, defeated. The invitation is too much. He can’t let go of the money that has a hold of him. One of the most-challenging things in the modern world is how money sweeps us off our feet sometimes. We’ll come back to this later. As for Mr. Fabulous, maybe it would’ve been easier to ask the richest guy they know for a small loan for the $5,000. Maybe they could’ve taken him out for a drink at his break like Murph and the Magic-Tones. But his part, Mr. Fabulous does better than the rich young ruler. He lets go of the money. He drops the prestige. He picks up his horn. He does have a chip on this shoulder the rest of the movie, but he’s there, right alongside the band. Would we be able to drop everything that brings us wealth and power, too?
“Here’s $10,000. An advance on your first recording session. Is it a deal?” (1:41:11)
The movie drives into a high-octane, high-larious car chase-filled third act when Jake and Elwood decide to make a record deal. The band finally gets their gig, they sell out the Palace Hotel, they get the gate money, it’s definitely enough to save the orphanage, and now Jake and Elwood have got to get out of there before the police get them. Or the Good Ol’ Boys. Or the Nazis. Or the Mystery Woman. Or their conscience.
As they try to make their escape to bring the gate money to the Office of the Assessor of Cook County, the president of Clarion Records grabs Jake and Elwood by the shoulders and says he’s so impressed, he has to record them. He offers them a $10,000 cash advance, right on the spot and asks, “Is it a deal?” Again, in case you’re wondering, that’s $36,000 in 2023 money. Maybe there were lots of eastern seaboard record producers roaming the streets of Illinois looking for the next big thing authorized to carry around that much cash to sign people with a handshake. Maybe there weren’t. I dunno. Remember, this movie is a cartoon.
Either way, Jake and Elwood have an ethical dilemma on their hands: what will they do with the money? It’s double what they have, it’s double what they need, it’s easy to take the money and run. They’re quick to say yes, sure it’s a deal, and then Elwood and the record producer exchange more dialogue. But watch Jake. He holds the money, thumbs through it, almost pawing over it, mouth agape. I think he’s genuinely wrestling with what to do. He’s been a thief. Can he be more than a thief? He’s going to do a lot after this to make sure the gate money saves the orphanage, and here he weighs if that money is going to be just for him, breaking his handshake contract and breaking his relationship with the band, or can he do better.
Earlier in the movie, Jake says, “Me and the Lord, we’ve got an understanding.” That comes off kind of like a scheme. Will the Lord understand him if he concocts yet another scheme?
Finally, Jake makes his choice and tells the producer: “Listen, do us a favor. Take $1400 dollars, and give it to Ray’s Music Exchange in Calumet City. And give the rest to the band.” The producer says, “You got it,” and Jake and Elwood are off to save the orphanage. Let’s look at this again in terms of dollars. $10,000 in 1980 money is $36,000. That’s $5,000 for Ray - the man who gave them a second chance with new instruments bought on an I.O.U. and played with playful charm by Legend #4 Ray Charles - and another $3,875 per band member. Plus $18,000+ in gate money for the orphanage.
And how much does “Joliet Jake” Blues get?
Zero. Point. Zero.
This moment, I think, is the most pivotal for Jake’s character in the whole movie.
The story from scripture that I think the most of here is Jesus encountering the tax collector Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. Most people want nothing to do with him for many reasons, chief among them, he’s a thief. When he meets Jesus, however, he repents, proclaiming he has (or will, depending on your translation) given back anything he’s defrauded back to the poor and more. Jesus says to him, in front of everyone, “Today salvation has come to this house, because [Zacchaeus], too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” A selfish and harmful way of pursuing money (sin / hamartia) ruled Zacchaeus’s life and in an active change of heart (repentance / metanoia), he is choosing to do the right thing. The chains are broken. He is free and found in the love of God. In another gospel, Jesus preaches that no one can serve two masters because no one can serve God and money (Matthew 6:24). Here, the teaching is lived out.
Jake now understands the understanding he and the Lord had on this “mission from God.” Instead of a scam, the money is for the band. The money for the orphanage is legitimately earned. They did it all with the power of music. This is the decision that propels the Blues Brothers into Act Three. They’re going knowing the band is taken care of, their debt is taken care of, and their mission is laser-focused and clear: get to Chicago.
“We’re on a mission from God.”
Let’s wrap up with a phrase at the heart of Elwood’s character. Over the course of the movie, Elwood says “We’re on a mission from God” five times. It serves two purposes. First, it convinces people of what they’re trying to do. Second, it reminds Elwood that he, too, has seen the light.
The last time Elwood says it is to Maury Sline, the booking agent.
Before that, it’s to Agatha Murphy. I know the great Aretha Franklin doesn’t have a name in this beyond “Soul Food Café Owner” so I’m going with Agatha, which like Aretha is a Greek name for “virtuous.”
Before that, it’s to Mr. Fabulous at the Chez Paul restaurant.
Before that, it’s to Murph and the Magic-Tones at the Holiday Inn.
And the first time is to Jake while trying to outrun Troopers Daniel and Mount.
Jake airs his grievances, becoming more aggravated with each point. “First you trade the Cadillac for a microphone. Then you lie to me about the band. Now you're gonna put me right back in the joint!”
Elwood responds with cool: “They're not gonna catch us. We're on a mission from God.”
Then he spins the car into a few 360s and Jake grinds his teeth: “Elwood…”
In each of these scenes, Elwood says “We’re on a mission from God” to doubters. Some end up believing him, others still doubt, but that’s the link between the five. At the very end of the Gospel of Matthew, after Jesus has died, resurrected, and appeared to the disciples, there is a moment called the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20). Jesus tells them to go out and make disciples, to teach and obey as they have been commanded, and to remember he is always with them. We’ve had a mission, your new mission is to carry on that mission. Even in the face of this miracle, the text reads that “some [of the disciples] doubted” (or as the NRSVUE implies, they all doubted). What does it take to believe in the mission and live it out? What are the doubts about the world that make us want to give up? Or the internal doubts about ourselves we think chain us down? Or the doubting people who can be rallied to a cause? Or a faith that includes doubt?
We all have sin (hamartia). We can all repent (metanoia). And Jesus is with us on this mission. Always.
If two repentant thieves can believe they are on a mission from God and succeed, how about us?
I hope so. And that’s why I love this movie.
Thank You, Dear Reader!
Thank you for reading my first-ever deep dive Feature Presentation for R-Rated Movie Club. It was fun to watch this beloved movie with fresh eyes and a new reason and then to share my thoughts with you. I hope you get a chance to watch it and enjoy it. Feel free to send me a note and let me know what you think. Paid subscribers can leave comments. For everyone else, go “Down the hall, turn right, take the elevator to 1102.”
Fancy Church Word #1 - Hallelujah = Praise God!
Yes, sadly, Legend #3 is Aretha Franklin who is nameless, billed as “Soul Food Café Owner” and then as “Mrs. Murphy” in the sequel. Yikes. Sorry, Bechdel Test lovers.