Tuesday, June 21, 2005

You Don't Like This Car?
"It's 106 miles to Chicago; we've got a full tank of gas, half-a-pack of cigarettes, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses."

"Hit it."

In yet another development guaranteed to make guys like me feel old, it's been 25 years this week since The Blues Brothers premiered in theaters. And for guys like me, the movie is absolutely essential. In fact, it's my favorite movie of all time.

Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi's Blues Brothers act took a long time getting together. They had appeared in utero, so to speak, in January 1976, during Saturday Night Live's first season, doing "I'm a King Bee" in bee costumes, but with their trademark fedoras and sunglasses. Later, Aykroyd and Belushi often warmed up SNL audiences with the Brothers before the show went on the air. Their first official appearance on the air was on April 22, 1978 (on what I believe to be the greatest single SNL episode of all time).

At first, audiences weren't sure how to take them. I remember my own reaction when seeing them for the first time in the spring of '78--is that supposed to be a joke, or are they serious? Today, we see the Blues Brothers as icons and Aykroyd and Belushi as major figures in the history of American comedy, but that came later. Confusion about what the Brothers were supposed to be lingered for quite a while. After a couple of appearances late in the 1977-78 season of SNL, they played some shows around the country that summer and recorded Briefcase Full of Blues. The album went to Number One in the fall of 1978, much to the consternation of blues purists and rock critics. They didn't care that the album was seriously intended by Belushi and Aykroyd to be a tribute to their blues heroes, or that it featured the likes of Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn, who were in fact real blues heroes.

Two years later, the movie was similarly dissed by many critics, although as the Chicago Sun Times notes in its weeklong series on the film, Roger Ebert liked it. His erstwhile partner, Gene Siskel, called it the best movie ever made in Chicago. Big box-office aside, the soundtrack album was also a smash--"Gimme Some Lovin'" was the lead single, and both "Jailhouse Rock" and "Sweet Home Chicago" got considerable airplay.

Shortly after the movie came out, my brother and I, with our respective girlfriends, drove an hour from our hometown to see it at the Orpheum Theater here in Madison. I couldn't tell you how many times I've seen The Blues Brothers from start to finish since. (Eight or nine, if I had to guess--not a lot in a world where some individuals have seen Titanic or Dirty Dancing literally hundreds of times, but a lot for me.) And whenever I surf past it on cable, I tend to watch it to conclusion--so I have seen the concluding car chase maybe 20 times or more over the years. As I mentioned, it's my favorite movie, and it's got that famous 106-miles-to-Chicago line. I have no idea what it means, precisely, but in that scene, Joliet Jake and Elwood were (and are) the Coolest Guys on Earth. And ever since I first saw that scene, it's been my personal gold standard for what it means to be Cool.

(Blues Brothers 2000, Aykroyd's sequel released in 1998, is not nearly so cool. The story, which revolves around the reunited band going to a blues contest in New Orleans, is nearly a carbon copy of the original. It's docked points for including an adorable child, and for declaring the Blues Brothers Band the winners of the contest even though their butts are clearly kicked by the Louisiana Gator Boys, led by B.B. King and Eric Clapton. Indeed, the Gator Boys get the two best numbers on the soundtrack, "How Blue Can You Get?" and "New Orleans.")

The great thing about the original Blues Brothers is that it's dated hardly at all, despite its age. Oh, the bit with the American Nazis is clearly out of 1980, but the rest of the movie is timeless. And any movie that features Ray Charles, Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin, and "Sweet Home Chicago" amped to a level bluesman Robert Johnson could never have imagined is something that deserves to be seen again and again for the next hundred years, at least.

Other Movies I Have Dug: Since I'm on the subject, here's a short list, mostly in alphabetical order, of some other movies I find myself watching over and over.

A League of Their Own (1992): Technically a chick flick, yes--but Tom Hanks is hilarious, Geena Davis is gorgeous, and the baseball showdown at the end remains dramatically satisfying even after you've seen it a few times.

Double Indemnity (1944): Barbara Stanwyck is smokin' hot and Fred MacMurray makes you forget kindly Steve Douglas from My Three Sons in this convoluted film noir classic.

Magnolia (1999): I will watch anything writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson does, but nothing he did before or has done since has come close to this. Magnolia promises you in the first 15 minutes that it's going to be the most audacious thing you've ever seen--and then delivers beyond your expectations.

Moonstruck (1987): Also technically a chick flick, but to a farm boy of Norwegian extraction, that whole Noo Yawk Italian thing is as exotic as Africa. I watch it in spite of Nicolas Cage, who's fairly unbelievable as Cher's one true love.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975): Absolutely essential, and all the more interesting for the ad hoc way in which it was made, funded by members of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and others, mostly because they really wanted to see it. Take note of Graham Chapman's performance as King Arthur: he wasn't just a comic, he could really act.

Raising Arizona (1987): The only Nicolas Cage movie in which I can't see him acting, which tells you something about Nicolas Cage. The funniest Coen Brothers script, not counting . . .

Fargo (1992): I grew up around people who sound a lot like the characters, and in winters like the one in which the movie takes place. Favorite line: "Prowler needs a jump."

Your turn. Which movies do you find yourself watching over and over again, and why?

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