The setting is Maxwell Street, on the near West Side of Chicago, a street long known for its open-air markets and for being the birthplace of Chicago Blues. During the 1930s and 1940s, many black musicians arrived in Chicago from the segregated South and found that their traditional instruments were not loud enough to be heard over the crowd and the street noise. They began to adopt electrically amplified instruments, powered by extension cords provided by local business owners keen on attracting the business of people coming to hear the blues music being played on their street (Smith).
The scene shows an older black man with an electric guitar and a deep, powerful voice, performing with his band for an admiring crowd. Two white men, one tall and one stout, both wearing black suits, black hats, and dark sunglasses, stop and watch for a moment. The tall one says simply, “Yep,” before exchanging a nod with the singer and moving on with his brother into the restaurant behind them.
The white men were Jake and Elwood Blues, the Blues Brothers, played by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in the 1980 film of that name. The guitar player leading the street band (billed as the “Maxwell Street Musicians”) was John Lee Hooker, who made his name in the 1950s and 1960s by developing his own style of boogie-woogie rhythm based on the country Delta Blues he grew up with.
The scene consists almost entirely of Hooker’s performance and runs less than 3 minutes within a two and a quarter hour long movie. The dialogue is both minimal and completely unnecessary to the plot of the film, but that moment encapsulates the intended spirit of The Blues Brothers. Aykroyd, whose love of blues music was described as “somewhere between encyclopedic and monomaniacal,” wrote the movie, and introduced the music to Belushi, with whom he created the act (Vanity Fair). It was Aykroyd who said of the blues musicians who inspired him and the clubs that featured them, "I want people to fill their showrooms and bars and buy their records. That's my mission" (Newbart).
Upon its release in 1980, the film met with a now-familiar mix of criticism and enthusiasm. Critics panned some of the excessive and disorganized elements of the plot while praising some of the individual performances. Pauline Kael criticized the casting of Cab Calloway as a janitor, Aretha Franklin as a waitress in a soul food restaurant, and James Brown as a preacher who tears the church apart with his sermonizing and dancing as “some-what patronizing.” And Jim O'Neal, who founded Living Blues magazine in Chicago in 1966, said that while the movie "was one of the factors that contributed to a blues boom" in the 1980s, it also contributed to the “image of blues bands to many people [as] two white guys in hats” (Newbart).
The harshest criticism suggests that the Blues Brothers act is a form of blackface minstrelsy, in which white performers make money by mimicking black people. Adam Gussow, an English graduate student at Princeton University studying post-Civil War American culture contends that the Blues Brothers’ act played up the idea that “blues is good-time party music." Gussow says, "They were responsible for re-creating blues as that. Blues has always been partly good-time party music for the black community -- but that was for the weekend, after a week of working hard under extreme duress” (Knopper).
Defenders of the Blues Brothers tend to argue that Aykroyd’s intentions were to revive the careers of his idols, and they point to the success of the film and albums as evidence that he did so. This defense is difficult to support objectively, at best. Subjectively, Sam Moore, of Sam and Dave, said that the Blues Brothers' chart hit cover version of "Soul Man" did "not a thing" for the original performers. "If anything, believe it or not, it buried us," he said, arguing that people remember the newer version, not the 1967 original (Knopper). And while the film gave John Lee Hooker and Aretha Franklin their first appearances on the big screen, Mike Kappus, Hooker's agent at the time, said Hooker greatly appreciated the high-profile appearance, but "the impact of the movie on his career was almost nonexistent” (Newbart).
Perhaps a better way to frame a defense of the Blues Brothers would be to acknowledge the problematic history of minstrelsy, and to consider the way the individual artists and band members involved in the project were treated, how they felt about their roles, and how their characters were represented in the context of the film. It is also worth considering responses to other projects where prominent white artists hire or feature black artists.
Later in the decade, similar criticism was leveled at Sting when he hired several renowned jazz musicians to play on his first solo album: saxophonist Branford Marsalis, drummer Omar Hakim, bassist Darryl Jones and keyboardist Kenny Kirkland. Marsalis’s brother, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, accused Branford of selling out and called Sting’s project a stain on jazz; and The Village Voice went so far as to dismiss the album as “Sting Sings With Negroes” in its review (Brogan). According to Sting, “The band made a decision to play with me, and it wasn't just because I was paying well. I think these guys are of such personal and musical stature, they wouldn't want to play with me if they didn't think it was worth doing. I don't see them as my back-up band. ...I felt it was a band.” It would seem that despite the criticism, the musicians agreed on that point. In particular, Kenny Kirkland continued to play on Sting albums until his death in 1996, indicating that he appreciated the collaborative spirit of the work.
In that light, The Blues Brothers could probably be viewed as another form of collaboration, and judged according to how the artists involved felt about it. Since the plot of the movie revolves around “getting the band back together,” it is worth noting the pedigree of the musicians in the band. The core of the rhythm section included Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn, both alumni of the Stax record company, which was notable for being an integrated company in Memphis during the 1960s, and for producing and promoting black artists. Cropper and Dunn were members of Booker T and the MGs, as well as regular session players during the first half of Stax’s heyday (Maultsby & Burnim, 136). With Matt Murphy on guitar and Willie Hall on drums, the band was racially integrated, and firmly rooted in a Memphis sound, though with the addition of a New York horn section, and arrangements done by Paul Shaffer, the band had a distinctly upbeat, pop sensibility to it. Aykroyd described them as “a Chicago, electrified, urban blues band, fused with the Memphis Stax/Volt movement” (Kenney, 13:06).
With the band in place behind two white frontmen, the project still had plenty of room for more black performers. The four big stars featured with both speaking cameos and musical numbers backed by the Blues Brothers Band were Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, James Brown, and Aretha Franklin. All four have published autobiographies, as well as having official biographies; it is worth comparing their own thoughts with those of their biographers.
Ray Charles had already published his autobiography the year before the Blues Brothers began filming. His legacy was well-established, and he only briefly referenced the film in the 1992 re-issue of the autobiography. However, his biographer, Michael Lydon, described the 1980s as a low point in which “his invisibility as complete as it would get” (341). The film shoot was an “enjoyable few days” on the South Side of Chicago, in which Aykroyd and Belushi put Charles at ease and romped through his musical number. As the blind proprietor of a music shop who stops a shoplifter with a well-placed pistol round, Ray is portrayed as savvy and in control of his establishment, but generous enough to extend credit to the band so they can pay for their instruments. A fair assessment of the experience might be to say that Charles enjoyed this appearance as important, but considered it a small part of the resurgence of his career that he would stage over the following decade.
James Brown and his biographer agree that his career was also at a low point in 1979 when Brown decided to sue his record company and stage a comeback. Brown concisely stated his opinion about the film and the filmmakers: “People who criticized John and Danny were confused. They didn’t understand that the Blue Brothers were actors pretending to be R&B performers. I know Danny and John themselves weren’t confused about it, and you could tell from the respect they gave the real R&B performers on the movie that they knew what they were doing. They were there for every take I did, and they treated me fantastic” (256).
Brown’s biographer, R.J. Smith, was less generous, quoting Pauline Kael’s line about the casting being “some-what patronizing,” and elaborating that “The script left you wondering if they understood the culture they professed to admire” (328). He also quoted Brown’s bandmates regarding their impressions of the change in their audience that came with the boost from appearing in The Blues Brothers. Trumpet player Hollie Farris noted that “Whites knew who he was, but then they saw him in that movie and decided they wanted to see more of him.” He further commented that “in 1975, it was ninety-nine percent black audiences. And then it started to change, and before you knew it, it was mostly white.” Guitarist Ron Laster joined Brown’s band in 1979, and after playing for a crowd of 54 at New York’s Beacon Theater before the film’s release, he noted that after the film came out, “We would destroy these places because they were so packed, and the girls so close to you. We used to love it, I said love it” (330).
Aretha Franklin was pleased with her role, as were the critics. According to Franklin’s autobiography, she “was relaxed and ready to go. [She] played the part of a loving but agitated wife whose husband is about to abandon her for the Blues Brothers band” (182). Pauline Kael said of Franklin’s performance that “she’s so completely there and so funny as she sings ‘Think’ that she transcends the film’s incompetence.” There was even talk of her being considered for a “Best Supporting Actress” Academy Award nomination (Berg 184).
This talk of an Academy Award may seem far-fetched in the context of a project that is essentially a two-hour Saturday Night Live sketch, but it is worth noting that Franklin’s role seems to call back to one of the original themes of blues music: the woman who is abandoned by her man to fend for herself. Rather than wilting or breaking down, Franklin is shown as strong and able to fend for herself. It is also significant that she is the owner of the restaurant that Matt works in, even if the film’s critics tend to reduce her role there to that of “a waitress” and describe the place as “a greasy coffee shop” or a “hash house.” While it would be wrong to claim that her character breaks with any common stereotypes, the subtexts in the script and her performance combine to present her as a real black woman in a position of relative power and respect in her community. And despite making a firm plea to keep Matt at home with her, she demonstrates both independence and tolerance after he leaves. Later in the film, when the children of the orphanage are deployed by Curtis to hand out signs advertising the show, she rolls her eyes but takes the poster.
Curtis, played by Cab Calloway, is the most interesting character of the four to examine when considering The Blues Brothers as a modern example of “blackface minstrelsy.” From Calloway’s first appearance onscreen, it is clear that Aykroyd is trying to establish some legitimacy for his character by showing Curtis in the same black suit and hat that Jake and Elwood wear. Elwood explicitly says to Curtis that “you and the penguin [the nun who runs the orphanage] are the only family we got, and you’re the only one who was ever good to us” and reminisces about hearing Elmore James records as a kid growing up in the orphanage. It is clear both that Elwood truly reveres his elder influences and that Aykroyd reveres his, and wants to claim their mantle of authenticity.
Calloway, even more so than Ray Charles, had already had a long and storied career. His autobiography was published in 1976, and he described himself as being in “semi-retirement,” stating, “I’m still an active entertainer, but I pick my spots” (244). Calloway had a closer relationship than anyone involved in the Blues Brothers to actual minstrelsy, having originally become a star during the Cotton Club era of the 1920s and 1930s. By 1979, his career had followed the trends to the point that he was performing a disco version of his classic “Minnie the Moocher.” The astounding reception of his classic performance of that song in The Blues Brothers convinced him to abandon the disco version. That success may have had something to do with Calloway’s statement that “The Blues Brothers is the best role I’ve ever had” (Shypton 174).
Yet, as a professional black performer for more than five decades, it is impossible to suggest that Calloway did not recognize the built-in insult of his role in the film. Quoting David Denby in New York Magazine, Calloway’s biography says, “These vaudeville musicals...often featured jazz musicians or black singers and dancers who would never get to star in a movie of their own. ...things haven’t changed that much in 45 years... The great old Cab Calloway...sings “Minnie The Moocher” in white tie and tails, in front of a huge audience, killing time for an impatient crowd while the boys are being chased by the police. Calloway’s smile— the seal of a great entertainer’s joy in giving pleasure— shows up Aykroyd and Belushi’s sullen “cool” for the sophomoric thing it is. Yet what an insulting context for Calloway’s triumph— as a fill-in!” (Shypton 176).
The question this raises is whether Calloway considered what Aykroyd was doing to be respectful or not. Does the fact that he went along with it somehow signify that Calloway considered the project to be one that promoted black artists instead of exploiting them? It may be impossible to say that in an absolute way, but it is certain that Calloway was a pragmatist when it came to race and his career. “I’ve always accepted the fact that I’m Negro. I don’t know anything else. I’ve been kicked in my ass all my life because of it, and, hell, I’ve come through it and become a star. Everybody has got to endure a certain amount of ass kicking to make it. People will step on you as you move along and there’s no way to avoid it. The only difference between a black and a white entertainer is that my ass has been kicked a little more and a lot harder because it’s black.” In the end, whether he was too classy, too kind, or too grateful, Calloway would probably never openly criticize the project--and that says a lot about the perceived power differential between even a beloved black entertainer and the white, mainstream of Hollywood.
Perhaps the best defense of the movie is to compare the black and white characters overall. In general, black people who appear in the movie, whether as characters or extras, are “normal.” They have jobs, they are part of their community, and even when they get pulled into a dance number, they are part of an average, every day, integrated Chicago. Representation of minor characters can be seen in the recurring Chicago police officers with speaking roles who are played by both black and white actors. And as mentioned before, Franklin, Charles, and Calloway are all normal people with real jobs, just trying to get by.
By contrast, it is the white characters who are played for laughs, as silly villains or faceless and violent rubes. The country band that Jake and Elwood hoodwink (The Good Ole Boys) and the Illinois Nazis are played for foils, often coming to violently over-the-top ends. The Blues Brothers themselves are not exactly held up as role models, despite the supposed nobility of their mission. Their interactions with the wealthy (white) patrons of the fancy restaurant are played as a low rent class rebellion against the snooty well-to-do.
It seems clear that Aykroyd and Belushi had the best of intentions, and that they succeeded in creating a platform through which a few of the black artists they admired could--and did--reach a broader audience. None of the criticism leveled at them seems to offer a better way to attempt a project like this that would avoid the problematic history of minstrelsy. But perhaps the best we can hope for is that individuals like Aykroyd will continue to pay the most honest homage possible to their roots and that whether those roots are a black or white cultural treasure, we will recognize them as human treasures.
- 2013. "Soul Men The Making Of The Blues Brothers." Vanity Fair, January 01. 72. NewsBank, EBSCOhost (accessed April 6, 2018).
- Bego, Mark, Aretha Franklin: the Queen of Soul, Da Capo Press, 2001.
- Belushi, John, and Dan Aykroyd. Briefcase Full of Blues. The Blues Brothers. Atlantic, 1978, CD.
- Blues Brothers. Directed by John Landis. Produced by Robert K. Weiss. By Dan Aykroyd and John Landis. Performed by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. United States: Universal Studios, 1980. DVD. 25th Anniversary Edition
- Brogan, Daniel. "Branford Marsalis Feels The Zing And The Sting Of Instant Pop." Tribunedigital-chicagotribune. September 05, 1985. Accessed April 06, 2018. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1985-09-05/features/8502280144_1_branford-marsalis-wynton-marsalis-live-aid.
- Brown, James (1933-2006) with Bruce Tucker, James Brown, the godfather of soul; New York : Thunder’s Mouth Press, c1990.
- Calloway, Cab, (1907-1994) and Bryant Rollins. Of Minnie the Moocher & me; with ill. selected and edited by John Shearer; New York : Crowell, c1976.
- Charles, Ray (1930-2004) with David Ritz, Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ own story, Da Capo Press, 1978/1992.
- Feather, Leonard. "A Fired-up Branford Marsalis Foresees Fun." Los Angeles Times. December 14, 1986. Accessed April 06, 2018. http://articles.latimes.com/1986-12-14/entertainment/ca-2742_1_branford-marsalis.
- Franklin, Aretha, with David Ritz. Aretha : from these roots; New York : Villard, c1999.
- Kael, Pauline. 1980. "The Blues Brothers." The New Yorker, 1980. 95. Biography in Context, EBSCOhost (accessed April 6, 2018).
- KNOPPER, STEVE. 1996. "Impact of "Blues Brothers' debated." The Tampa Tribune, April 03. 6. NewsBank - Archives, EBSCOhost (accessed April 6, 2018).
- Lydon, Michael; Ray Charles : man and music, New York : Routledge, 2004.
- Making of The Blues Brothers. Directed by Joseph J.M. Kenney. Performed by Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. United States: Universal Studios Home Video, 1998. YouTube. February 25, 2017. Accessed April 6, 2018. https://youtu.be/rHMzKNR7iWc.
- Maultsby, Portia K., and Mellonee V. Burnim. Issues in African American Music: Power, Gender, Race, Representation. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017.
- Newbart, Dave. 2005. "Film fueled interest in Chicago blues scene." Chicago Sun-Times (IL), June 22. 9. NewsBank - Archives, EBSCOhost (accessed April 6, 2018).
- Smith, R. J. The One: The Life and Music of James Brown. New York: Gotham Books, 2012.
- Shipton, Alyn; Hi-de-ho: the life of Cab Calloway, Oxford [U.K.] ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2010.
- Smith, Tom. "A Visit To Maxwell Street." Chicago Blues Guide. Accessed May 12, 2018. http://www.chicagobluesguide.com/features/maxwell-street-visit/maxwell-street-visit-page.html.
- "Sting.com Discography The Dream of the Blue Turtles." Sting.com Homepage. Accessed April 06, 2018. http://www.sting.com/discography/index/album/albumId/20/tagName/studio_albums.