L’Osservatore Romano on The Blues Brothers… for English readers

You might have read that the Vatican’s increasingly strange newspaper L’Osservatore Romano had a fluff piece on that famously "Catholic" movie The Blues Brothers.

I like The Blues Brothers.  After all these years it still makes me laugh… perhaps because it reminds me of my youth… but I digress.

I didn’t post about this little trip to the zoo by L’Osservatore Romano when it came out because I a friend of mine in Italy was preparing an English translation of the pieces.

Sorry about this, but here they are.

To make this more substantive, feel free to add your favorite Blues Brothers lines and moments in the combox together with your comments on these quirky articles.

I can attest that my friend enjoyed the When we were traveling through Chicago we made sure to stop for a photo-op at the Cook County Courthouse. For the record, here are the pieces on , for your disedification (from the original Italian by a guest translator):

On a mission from God (and cinema) by Emilio Ranzato

You don’t enter myth by chance. If still today a black suite and a pair of black sunglasses will sooner recall the John Belushi-Dan Aykroyd duo rather than Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs or the alien hunters of Men In Black it’s because under its breezy surface The Blues Brothers reveals itself as an incredibly shrewd and insightful piece of work. As is often the case with masterpieces, it is a mix of different influences catching a series of elements that were going to impose themselves in the following years. First of all, them: Jake and Elwood. Brothers without a family or real ties. And even without a real job. A perfectly autonomous splinter cell wandering about America like a drifting mine. Always dressed the same, almost always inexpressive, their mask fits perfectly the early ’80’s trend in American film-making. The re-born Hollywood industry on the one side, and Reagan’s will to reconsolidate the ideological home front on the other side by discouraging dissenting or too politically oriented voices secured the triumph of disengaged cinema centered on extremely distinctive characters and as iconographic ones as comics superheroes, with which they shared even special powers and abilities. It was the season of Star Wars and E.T., of Indiana Jones and the time-travels of Back To The Future, of Ghostbusters and the nasty Gremlins, of the endless sequels of Rocky and the lone-warriors like Rambo – the only concession to more serious issues in theory, but in fact with nearly grotesque implications and strongly patriotic anyway.

John Landis’ movie is part of the same genre as evident by the presence of Princess Leila/Carrie Fisher as Jake’s bellicose former fiancee, as well as Steven Spielberg’s cameo at the end of the movie. But while The Blues Brothers took advantage of such a trend towards rather childish blockbuster productions, at the same time it satirized them, also by adding another ingredient of great success in that time’s cinema: the surreal comicality that will make the fortune of the demential subgenre of movies like Airplane!  but is also traceable back to a noble tradition of comic cinema, as that of the Marx brothers and even to the old slapstick – that is the physical comicality of silent movies – from which the characters derived their anarchical ability to destroy everything on their path.

 “Where’s the Cadillac? The Caddy? Where’s the Caddy?”, Jake asks Elwood in one of the first scenes of the movie. “I traded it” is Elwood’s answer. “You traded the Bluesmobile for this?” says Jake of the police car with which his brother – very tactfully  – has just picked him up at the prison. “No. For a microphone”, explains Elwood. “A microphone?!?” insists an increasingly disconcerted Jake, only to conclude:”Okay, I can see that.” Such an exchange sets the tone of the whole movie from the onset. No wonder that they will later emerge from the rubble of a building and say “It’s almost nine o’clock. We gotta go to work”, after having brushed themselves off quickly. Or when they’ll speed away from police cars through a shopping mall while commenting on the items for sale .

Yet Landis’ movie didn’t let itself be absorbed so much by this extreme humor which was limited to the main characters as it did strive to outline a credible scenario, starting with an urban setting open to notes of almost documentary realism thus creating a daring but highly effective contrast. Above all, the movie provided the stylized duo with an absolutely original subject, with little in common with comic cinema. A close look will reveal themes of considerable depth which by the way help making sense of the Catholic context represented by the orphanage run by nuns and by the “mission from God” they are committed to. There’s the theme of the return of the prodigal son, of redemption, to be achieved through sacrifice, of proselitism, when they rescue the old members of the band from frustrating and embarrassing situations to bring them back to their true vocation. Especially the latter is a theme that follows a pattern of art films like Seven Samurai, but is also reflective of a main theme of the American movie narrative, that is the redemption of the lost soul that runs through the history of the silver screen from The Searchers to Taxi Driver. Besides, The Blues Brothers is of course a great musical, daringly produced with largeness of means at a time when only to mention such genre was cause for sneer among the public. While dance numbers are few and sketchy, the whole movie is underpinned with a choreography made of the steady rhythm of images, of the visual, almost pyrotechnical rendering of the destructions in  which the characters indulge, the appearances of an impressive series of stars of black music in perfect sync with the narrative phases of the plot. As to how all these ingredients manage to blend in a coherent body, that’s the mystery of masterpieces. Without a doubt, beside the unforgettable Belushi, much credit must be given to two underappreciated talents like Landis and Aykroyd. Despite having authored only comedies and having soon gone down a descending parable, the former has been a true author, at the same time an innovator and an expert of the old cinema, as demonstrated by his classical but fast-paced and inherently musical language. The latter, who co-authored the screenplay with the director, has been a versatile actor who was also nominated for an Academy Award for Driving Miss Daisy (Bruce Beresford, 1989) – after having revolutionized American TV as author of the Saturday Night Live Show. The parable of the Blues Brothers will then end where it started: in jail, on the notes of Elvis Presleys’ very appropriate Jailhouse Rock. But only after having completed their two-fold  mission: saving the orphanage and entering the history of cinema.

Let’s pause here for a favorite Catholic moment – in Italian – from The Blues Brothers!

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3tOIoCo_jg&NR=1]

And now back to the Editor of L’Osservatore Romano, whom I thought I knew…

A Catholic movie, by Gian Maria Vian

Is The Blues Brothers a Catholic movie? Clues abound in a production where details are in no way accidental, starting with a framed picture of a young and strong John Paul II in the house of “Blue Lou” Marini’s landlady, black-robed and with a Sicilian accent, and therefore Catholic. Doubtlessly Catholic like Alan "Mr. Fabulous" Rubin, of Polish descent and especially like the brothers Jake and Elwood Blues. And it is their most implacable foes who note it, the detestable Illinois Nazis.

As a matter of fact Jake and Elwood grew up at the orphanage dedicated to St. Helena and the Holy Shroud –  run by the scary but in her own way loving Sister Mary Stigmata, aka “The Penguin” – now at risk of closing because of $5,000 in unpaid taxes. But for the two of them that Catholic institution – in whose basement the old clerk Curtis used to play the blues harp for them, as they recall fondly – is all their family and so they decide to save it and its little guests whatever it takes. But how to do that without going too much astray from the values instilled by the nuns and still held as valid despite the occasional transgression? The light from above comes at the Triple Rock Baptist Church to where Curtis directed them and where they hear a sermon by Rev. Cleophus Brown on the need to make good use of one’s own life. And it will be precisely the Protestant cleric to acknowledge Jake’s change (“You have seen the light!") which unleashes a charismatic rock wave among the congregation and most important will lead the brothers to reunite “the band” to raise the money necessary to save the orphanage. When with the little orphans – and “The Penguin – the brothers are capable of moving attentions: for instance Elwood does not forget the cheap cheese cream an elderly friend had asked for and there’s nothing more important to them than “the mission from God”- Elwood will even renounce a date with a charming girl for it – and the mission eventually succeeds thus giving the history of cinema and music a memorable, and in fact Catholic movie.

FacebookEmailPinterestGoogle GmailShare/Bookmark

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in SESSIUNCULA. Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to L’Osservatore Romano on The Blues Brothers… for English readers

  1. Jacob says:

    OR has gone completely off the rails…

    To compare The Blues Brothers to Seven Samurai in even the smallest way…

    Dear God, get them to a drug rehab clinic, they’re smoking something pretty hard over there…

  2. TrueLiturgy says:

    “You might have read that the Vatican’s increasingly strange newspaper L’Osservatore Romano”

    HAHA! Love it!

  3. wolfeken says:

    It remains my favorite movie of all time — but I’m not sure I would ever recommend it as a Catholic movie. There are several scenes (one in particular) in it that merit the R rating.

    That said, at least The Penguin is dressed like a nun despite the 1980 timeline.

  4. Peggy R says:

    This is weird. Chicago has a lot of Catholics of varied ethnicities; that’s why there is the presence of Catholic characters in the film. Geesh. How does that make the film “Catholic”?

  5. moconnor says:

    I don’t have any problem with most of the analysis here. Artworks are often read in interesting ways. I don’t really buy the Catholic analysis, though. The pic of JP2 only tells the audience that these kids mostly grew up in the orphanage together. The exception would be “Mr Fabulous” who is obviously Jewish, not Catholic. I still love this movie, mostly because the musicians are very poor actors.

    “We have both kinds of music here, country AND western.”

  6. catholicmidwest says:

    Why is the OR printing this garbage??

  7. bookworm says:

    The Blues Brothers is primarily a Chicago movie — John Landis intended it as such — and it led to a resurgence in Chicago-based movie and TV production. The “Catholic” aspects are simply a reflection of the fact that Chicago is a culturally Catholic city where people identify with the parishes and parochial schools they attended in their youth, regardless of whether or not they still practice their faith.

    Chicago is also home to the greatest population of Poles outside of Warsaw, and at the time the film was made, JPII had just been elected, which of course was a point of great pride to the local Poles.

  8. Supertradmum says:

    A few references to nuns and the orphanage amidst chaos and sexual innuedo does not make a “Catholic movie”, no matter how popular it still is. Entertainment, yes. Catholic, no. Three years ago, the editorial staff of the OR should have been drastically revamped.

  9. bookworm says:

    Also, I believe the whole subplot about the “Illinois Nazis” was a poke at a real-life group of Nazis who insisted on holding a march in the predominantly Jewish suburb of Skokie in the late 1970s. The community was also home to numerous concentration camp survivors and the court battles over the Nazis’ right to march made national news at the time.

  10. Andrew says:

    I must say I was offended by the bad language in the The Blues Brothers, and calling one the nuns, Sr Mary Stigmata, obviously a mockery of this beautiful event, when certain special souls have shared Our Lord’s Passion.

    It was funny in parts, no doubt.

    But I think it really is stretching the imagination, to call it a “Catholic” movie.

    This comment has even been made by some secular commentators, in responding to this story in the Vatican newspaper.

    I wonder, why L’Osservatore Romano has since the appointment of Mr Vian as the editor, been embracing the West’s secular culture, which more than anything, has contributed to a decline in religious belief.

    Bing Crosby’s 1940’s movies where he played Fr O’Malley, weren’t exactly strong Catholic celluloid either, but they did contribute to an interest in priestly vocations among young men at that time, because they drew very strongly on the Catholic culture of the era.

    Religion has always played a strong part in the history of movies, and if they are to be chronicled, there are better examples, I would think, of religious films, even those with a Protestant orientation, like Chariots of Fire in 1981, commenting on the faith of English Olympic athlete, Eric Liddell.

  11. Supertradmum says:

    I am sorry, but naming nuns icky names was done by generations of schoolgirls, including myself. Sister Frozen Holy Water Face, Sister Poke, Sister Sore Knuckles, Sister Magnificence, Sister Slipper Feet, etc. The name in the movie could be a real name, or one handed down by hundreds of students, naughty as we were.

  12. Sliwka says:

    I agree the CAtholic interpt is a stretch, although the idea of a “redemptive story” is a smaller stretch.

    Best quotation:
    It’s a hundred and six 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.

  13. Tim Ferguson says:

    I hate Illinois Nazis.

  14. Tim Ferguson: Someone had to say it.

  15. Charivari Rob says:

    A fun and funny movie. Possibly the last great American movie musical. Truly an all-star cast. A good cause, flawed heroes, and easy-to-hate villains. Didn’t let worrying about the laws of physics get in the way of a fun story.

    Catholic? Well, sorta… Jake and Elwood – even with their evident sins and flaws, they have some values (or at least goodwill), a sense of obligation, recognition that the Church (at least as represented by this one Sister) is a force that stands between the vulnerable and much worse things, clumsily and at times thoughtlessly trying to answer God’s call. The argument can be made that such is a metaphor for the people of God.

    Really, though, I think they were just having fun with it.

    “Hey, what happened to the lights?”

    “Maybe they blew a fuse.”

    “I don’t think so, man. Those lights are off on purpose.”

  16. Stu says:

    I bet these cops got SCMODS.

  17. Dr. Eric says:

    Any movie in which Chicago is destroyed is OK by me. ;-)

    John Landis at least went to Catholic school (I don’t know if he’s actually Catholic.) He remarked about his Catholic school education on one of Bill Maher’s shows.

    The music in the movie is good.

  18. Andrew says:

    I see SuperTradMum you were obviously the quintessential Catholic schoolgirl! Good stuff.

  19. Craig says:

    Here are a couple funny ones…

    Mrs. Tarantino: Are you the police?
    Elwood: No, ma’am. We’re musicians.

    —-

    Elwood: What kind of music do you usually have here?
    Claire: Oh, we got both kinds. We got country *and* western.

    —-

    And my fave… ;)

    Elwood: It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.
    Jake: Hit it.

    —-

    OK…disclaimer.

    This movie should never get the ‘Catholic’ tag. It’s funny, has some awesome music, great quotes, and more car crashes than I’ve ever seen in a movie. But it also has some pretty foul language. The ‘redemptive’ angle, while pretty well done for a couple of misfits like Jake and Elwood, probably doesn’t redeem it altogether.

    If you take what is good, and leave out the junk, it’s a decent cultural flick. That’s about it.

  20. Andrew says:

    Thanks Craig, and I will say what I mean about the foul language.

    The scene when they come into the cafe, and Aretha Franklin who played the waitress, does her song and dance! She uses more four letter words, then you could throw a stick at.

    That scene really made me dislike the movie. When women swear, it comes across even worse than when men do it.

    But perhaps as Charivari Rob says, these flawed individuals are meant as a metaphor for the People of God, who always can find redemption, which is obviously a strong theme in a totally different genre, Brideshead Revisited.

    Somehow though, I don’t think that is the message the producers of The Blues Brothers, wanted to impart.

  21. Rob Cartusciello says:

    A favorite movie of mine.

    At the time, it had the most car crashes of any movie. They also had a car chase through a mall. It had an amazing number of cameos and a memorable soundtrack.

    There is also a Jesuit in the movie – Prison Guard #2 was played by Fr. Gerald Walling S.J. A pretty nice guy who I met when he taught theater at Marquette University in the mid 90s.

    As for favorite lines:

    That ain’t no Hank Williams song!

    Use of unnecessary violence in the apprehension of the Blues Brothers has been approved.

    Like Elwood, I have used the address 1015 W. Addison, Chicago, Illinois (Wrigley Field) when I didn’t want folks to know where I lived.

  22. B Knotts says:

    Don’t you think that the Bluesmobile falling apart right after they got out of it at Daley Plaza was a metaphor for gratia efficax?

  23. I will defend the film as Catholic – the theme of redemption and divine providence (We’re on a mission from God)come to mind. Are there naughty words? Yes, but naughty words are not necessarily sinful. Is there gratuitous violence? Yes, in a comic book way. But then again, there is gratuitous comic book violence in the Book of Judges. It is not a religious film, but it is a Catholic film – in that there are religious themes underpinning the story.

    I will also defend L’Osservatore Romano on publishing this admittedly silly stuff. Its called “fun” – I know that just irks some people, but we are allowed a little fun in the world, even at the Vatican.

    All of you people complaining about the current editorial path – what is it you liked so much about the old L’Osservatore Romano? Oh, you never read it? What about the weekly English version? Oh, you didn’t subscribe?

    At least Vian has got people READING L’Osservatore Romano, and talking about it!

  24. I haven’t read the article yet. I don’t need to for an opinion of the movie.

    First of all, for the reasons mentioned earlier by Craig, it should not have been termed a “Catholic” film. The references which would enable to make it lay claim are rather superficial. The actual moment of “spiritual awakening,” if you could call it that, didn’t even take place in a Catholic setting.

    The plot was “fair to middlin'” as we’d say back home, and a certain discretion would be advised for some mature themes dealt with in the film (albeit not to the extent of taking it over). The memorable lines in the film, some of which are mentioned here, were the stuff of which cult status is made. But what made the film GREAT, were the musicians themselves. Whether gold-record artists like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, or sidemen like Matt “Guitar” Murphy and Donald “Duck” Dunn, they are the segments I watch over and over again, as the disc version of this film has a proud place in my library.

    James Brown’s line was probably my favorite: “Do you see the light?”

  25. Stu says:

    Who wants an orange whip?

  26. jm says:

    Tacky sanctuary banners.

    Shag carpet.

    Crucifix-less sanctuaries.

    Richard O’Brien

    The Blues Brothers.

    Here i thought we were 40 years from the 70s.

  27. Supertradmum says:

    We still have tacky sanctuary banners in our parish and in such “liturgical colors” as turquoise blue, pink, orange, etc. depending on the season..I think these are less classic than The Blues Brothers, which must have some appeal to us Catholics, even though it is a irreverent and definitely “adult”.

  28. Doubtful Thomas says:

    Don’t you blaspheme in here!

  29. Daniel Latinus says:

    What is it about European commentators that they feel the need to take entertaining fluff, and construct a grandiose interpretation of it?

    As for the comments about the foul language, more than one literary critic (the late poet John Ciardi comes to mind) has noted that Catholic and Protestant cultures seem to have very different attitudes to blaphemy and profane language.

    In Catholic cultures, the foulest language is blasphemy, defined as insulting holy things. But Catholic cultures tend to be more tolerant of other coarse expression. (Examples can be found in Chaucer and Dante.) Protestant cultures tend to descralize, and generally regard references to body functions and sexual matters as most seriously indecent. Ciardi once observed that a Spanish muleskinner could “start from Triune Top and work his way down to the local nuns’ habits,” while the English muleskinner was “limited to five or six body functions.”

    To illustrate, I attended a Lutheran school in my childhood. I rarely heard four-letter words, and the f-bomb was was never uttered. I was once subjected to corporal punishment for using the word “booger” and threatened with having “my mouth washed out with soap” for telling a kid to “shut up”.

    When I started attending a Catholic school, I was surprised and a little scandalized to hear the whole array of forbidden language, including the f-bomb, used in ordinary conversation. Although such language was only used by the students talking among themselves, I never heard of any student being punished for using foul language.

    And in all-boys Catholic high school, even the priests were known to use some rather foul language when the situation seemed to require it.

  30. Robbie J says:

    Definitely one of my favourite movies. A movie like “The Blues Brothers” could IMHO not be made today simply because it’s too politically incorrect; it makes fun of just about everybody. Compared to the (mostly) rubbish that Hollywood produces these days it’s a gem. Best part is, the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously-it’s just good fun.

  31. jmgarciajr says:

    I am on record — and long ago, at that — as believing The Blues Brothers as being a VERY Catholic film. The coarse language does not, to my mind, disqualify it. Neither does the cartoon “violence.”

    But there are elements of the film, especially if you view the Director’s Cut, that resonate within a Catholic heart.

    (Then again, I have been adamant that both Horton Hears A Who and Pulp Fiction[!] are Catholic movies.)

    Jake: [Noticing the train rumbling by underneath the window of his brother’s room] How often does that train go by?
    Elwood: So often you don’t even notice it.

  32. Andrew says:

    A very good point.

    The guys were brought up in a Catholic orphanage, but the scene where they receive the epiphany about their mission to save it, is in a black gospel church, down the road. No racism intended.

    An incongruous scene, for a so called Catholic movie.

    Perhaps akin to Bernadette and the three seers of Fatima, seeing Our Lady, while unsuspectingly visiting a Protestant place of worship, as rare as they were, in their area.