Whenever I am missing what I still consider to be my hometown (broadly speaking), that town being Chicago, I decide to watch The Blues Brothers (1980). Now that I have covered my three favorite movies of all time (The World’s End, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back), perhaps I will go on a run of movies set in the greatest city in the world. That is Chicago, by the way. As I tell everyone who returns my solemn declaration with incredulity, it is scientifically proven! Then again, I have no desire to spend another winter up in that place, so I guess my enthusiasm is somewhat tempered.
How does one describe The Blues Brothers? When “Joliet” Jake Blues (John Belushi) gets out of prison and is greeted by his brother Elwood (Dan Akroyd), the former convict is told that the life he left behind while incarcerated has fallen apart. This news does not perturb him too much as throughout the film, despite being shot at by (no joke, though presented comedically) pretty much every law enforcement officer in the state of Illinois, Nazis, a country western band, and Carrie Fisher (yes, that Carrie Fisher, who plays Jake’s jilted ex-fiancee, listed in the credits as “Mystery Woman”), they carry on in a cool manner that would do England proud. They are able to face such adversity because they are given “a mission from God” to get their own band back together, play some shows, and raise money for the Catholic orphanage in which they were raised: St. Helen of the Blessed Shroud. Though not directly ordered to do so by “The Penguin,” Sister Mary Stigmata (Kathleen Freeman), she turns them loose on society and telling them not to come back “until you have redeemed yourselves.” While their redemption is fraught with stealing, property destruction, and a high-speed chase through seemingly the whole of the greater Chicago area, they do manage to raise the funds to save the orphanage. So that is something.
Not only is The Blue Brothers set in the greatest city in the world, but it is also hilarious. Still, I do have some problems with the comedy from a faith perspective, and you can read all about that in my lovely dissertation, “The Costumed Catholic: Catholics, Whiteness, and the Movies, 1928-1973.” Intellectual distaste aside, when Ray Charles brandishes a pistol and nearly shoots a teenager attempting to steal a guitar from his store, well, I chuckle just a bit every time. And just when you think they are playing the famously blind musician as having sight, they show him putting up a poster for the Blues Brothers’ concert on his wall upside-down. Good times. I could point to any number of other funny scenes, but I will just leave you with one other mental image: Carrie Fisher wielding a flame thrower. Indeed, the comedy is over-the-top, but it just gets me.
This may sound strange, but the “mission from God” that Jake and Elwood are on in The Blues Brothers is basically a corporal act of mercy. Bear with me here. The Church teaches that there are seven of these acts: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, giving shelter to travellers, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned, and burying the dead. An orphanage fulfills many of those functions, thus, ipso facto, you have a corporal act of mercy. It may be a stretch, and the film does not pretend that the brothers are saints by any means, but the hand of God does seem to be (at times quite literally) on them. And in the end, they are punished for their crimes.
The Blues Brothers is near and dear to my heart because of the setting, the comedy, and because it is a Catholic (though somewhat problematic) film. It is violent, however, and if you are sensitive to that sort of thing you might be shocked by how casual it is at times. Nobody dies, though. I also saw this movie as a kid, and while I think it is okay (despite having an R rating) for the family to watch together, there are some swear words in it along with some of the other rougher parts. However, if you can get a version where those words are cut out, what you are left with is a movie where the over-the-top aspects become goofy. And if you are from Chicago like me, it is a must. During the final concert where the sing “Sweet Home Chicago” will get you a little misty-eyed and wanting a Polish sausage!