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Off the Beaten Tracks: Brothers banish the Blues

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HEAVEN knows we’re miserable now, as Mr Morrissey almost said, so here’s a suggestion to lift the gloom. Invest four quid or so in a copy of the Blues Brothers DVD, pour yourself a large one and prepare for two hours or so of sheer pleasure. If you already have the movie, you’ll know that like This Is Spinal Tap and Withnail And I it gets better every time you see it, so long as you don’t mind fruity language and a lot, I mean a lot, of car crashes.

The Blues Brothers, directed by John Landis, was released in 1980. Set in Chicago, it is the story of two ne’er-do-well musicians, Jake and Elwood Blues, played by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. After Jake is released from jail on parole they visit the Roman Catholic orphanage where they were brought up and learn from Sister Mary ‘the Penguin’ Stigmata that it faces closure unless $5,000 can be raised to pay property taxes. An offer by Jake to steal the money is given short shrift.

After hearing a dynamic sermon by the Rev Cleophus James, played by soul legend James Brown, Jake and Elwood decide to reform their band, the Blues Brothers, and perform a fundraising gig for the orphanage. Five of the old crew are playing at a Holiday Inn as ‘Murph and the Magic Tones’ and need little persuasion to rejoin. They are all played by top musicians, Steve Cropper on guitar, Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn on bass, Murphy Dunne on keyboards, Willie Hall on drums and Tom Malone on sax. However the trumpeter, Mr Fabulous, played by Alan Rubin, has built a new career as the maitre d’ at a swish restaurant called Chez Paul and is reluctant to give it up. He changes his mind after an excruciating scene in which the brothers throw shrimp into each other’s mouths, loudly guzzle champagne, offer to buy the wife and daughters of a horrified gent at the next table and threaten to turn up there every breakfast, lunch and dinner time.

The final two bandsmen are Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy and saxophonist ‘Blue Lou’ Marini, who are now working at a soul-food restaurant owned by Murphy’s wife, played by Aretha Franklin. On the way to visit them, Jake and Elwood find their road blocked by a demo against the American Socialist White People’s Party, the ‘Illinois Nazis’, who are occupying a bridge over a river. Elwood drives the Bluesmobile, a battered former police car, straight at the uniformed swastika squad forcing them to dive into the water and vow revenge.

At Aretha’s restaurant, she tries to dissuade her boys from rejoining the band, performing a brilliant version of her song Think with synchronised backing from the lady diners.

Murphy and Marini take no notice and the show is on the road after a visit to Ray’s Music Exchange, run by the great Ray Charles, to ‘buy’ instruments with an IOU. 

Thereafter the brothers run the gauntlet of police, Illinois Nazis, the Good Ole Boys – a country band whom they cheat out of a gig – and a mystery woman played by Carrie Fisher who attacks them with a rocket launcher, a bomb and an M-16 rifle.

Star spotters will note cameo roles by former Laugh-In cast member Henry Gibson as the chief Nazi, Cab Calloway as the brothers’ friend Curtis, Twiggy as a woman at a gas station, John Lee Hooker as a street musician, Joe Walsh as a prison inmate and Steven Spielberg as the Cook County Assessor.

There are countless classic scenes combining comedy with musical brilliance, great choreography and a bonanza for car-chase fans. No fewer than 103 vehicles were wrecked, including a Ford Pinto dropped from a helicopter at 1,200ft, and the movie went $10million over budget at $27.5million. One scene alone, involving 500 extras and three Sherman tanks, cost $3.5million.

But it was all worth it. Global box office takings surpassed $115million, there were the spin-offs including VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray, and there is no measuring the number of times it has made people happy.

The Blues Brothers originated in sketches on the US comedy show Saturday Night Live, as did another smash-hit musical film, Wayne’s World, starring Mike Myers and Dana Carvey. Both had sequels but by the time the unsuccessful Blues Brothers 2000 came out John Belushi was long gone, dying of a drugs overdose in 1982. Sad waste of a great comic talent.

In 2010, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano opined: ‘The Blues Brothers is a memorable film, and, judging by the facts, a Catholic one.’

And in 2013, a critic from the movie magazine Empire declared: ‘It still sounds great and looks as good as ever through Ray-Bans.’

PS: Following my piece last week about Van Dyke Parks, I received an email from his nephew. Rick Parks, son of VDP’s brother Carson who wrote Somethin’ Stupid, is a professor at the John Wells Division of Writing for Screen & Television, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California. I’m sure he won’t mind my sharing it with you:

Alan,

As with seemingly everything in this dwindling world, your article on my uncle Van Dyke came across my desk, and I was extremely pleased at both the effort and the content. 

As, I suppose, Van Dyke himself will be, as soon as I forward it to him (I am hopefully, for him, a constant supply of mirth and support in these isolated days). 

I wanted to fill in a blank for you on his mother, my Grandmother: (Mary) Joy Ashe Alter, daughter of William Riley Alter and Mary Ashe, and descended from David Alter.

See what too much time on one’s hands will do?

All of this is unimportant and yet is of equal value to me as discovering a fellow cactus grower across the pond.

Here’s to warm weather.

Thanks again for the article, which mentions my father’s song as well.  

T’was the tip of the iceberg but surely raises the rent.

best of health,

rp

After an exchange of cactus pictures, Rick confirmed that his uncle had read my piece ‘and I got the feeling that he appreciated, yet ignored the praise’. Typically self-effacing.

Thanks, Rick. When something like this happens it makes my humble scribblings all worthwhile.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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