Remember this awesome scene from The Blues Brothers?
ELWOOD: Oh, no. No, no, no.
JAKE: What is it?
ELWOOD: Cops just put on the party lights. We’re getting pulled over.
JAKE: Are you serious?
ELWOOD: I could not be more serious.
JAKE: You’ve got to be kidding me.
You don’t? Ah. That’s because it actually was written like this:
Since I first saw the film lo those many years ago, this perfect dialogue has been etched in my brain.
I went to a pretty progressive school as a kid. One of our field trips was a class trip to go see The Blues Brothers when it came out. I would have been nine or ten at the time. We all had to get consent forms from our parents, cause it wasn’t a G rated film. We loved it, especially all the swearing and the scenes where things got demolished. I saw it at least five times. I lost count.
Studying film and screenwriting as an adult, I wondered how it was that one of my favorite films seemed to so flagrantly disregard so many of the structural principles that writing gurus trumpeted as gospel. Recently, I watched it again after many years. Yup. It still kicks ass. So, gentle reader… let’s take a look under the hood and see why it kicks ass.
(If you haven’t seen The Blues Brothers, go watch it before reading this. You won’t regret it – unless, for some reason, you’re an alien from another planet where they hate comedy and blues.)
LACK OF A CLEAR ANTAGONIST
There’s no villain in The Blues Brothers. No one is opposing their quest to get the money for the orphanage; no one wants their band to fail; no single figure emerges as a representative of the forces that oppose them. This shouldn’t work. Or if it does work, then there must be some sort of conflict between the brothers, or a dilemma of some sort, that gives the film its juice. But no. Nothing.
Instead, what we have is a “chorus of antagonists” model: loosely, our heroes spend the first half of the film pissing everyone off and the last half of the film getting chased by them. If we were to pick one antagonist to stand out above the rest, it would be the cops, but more as an elemental force than a focus on the two particular pissed-off cops that repeatedly crash while pursuing them.
This is speculation on my part, but it’s possible that this structure may have its origins in long-form improv forms, in which new characters enter and initiate conflicts which are then resolved or paid off in other scenes towards the end of the piece. Ground zero for this kind of work was Second City in Chicago, where Aykroyd trained & performed before joining the cast of Saturday Night.
Aspiring screenwriters are told that their scripts must have a single protagonist: that even in films that apparently have a dual protagonist (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid being the most popular example), one protagonist emerges as the prime mover. Not so here. The characters are almost entirely equal in status. Almost entirely. There is an extremely understated comic dynamic at play between the two of them.
Most duo acts in comedy follow a familiar template. A wacky character is usually paired with a straight man. Often, there will be an established power dynamic between the two, where one is clearly in charge. Usually the one that isn’t in charge is the one that gets the pies in the face. In clowning, this pairing is known as a Joey/Auguste. The Joey is the mean one in charge and the Auguste is the lovable screwup. Watch this clip of Mump and Smoot to see a classic example:
See how clearly defined, even elemental, the characters are? There are variations, but the principles are pretty robust. The straight man’s deadpan reaction makes the other character’s wacky behaviour more funny. (In the vaudeville days, straight men got paid slightly more – good straight men were scarcer then good zanies, and they didn’t get the same appreciation from audiences that didn’t understand the mechanics of laughcraft.)
The Blues Brothers turns this notion inside out. With Jake and Elwood Blues, we have two straight men, each reacting with the same deadpan nonchalance to the chaos that erupts around them – a chaos entirely of their own making.
The two characters are very close to being a single character. For the most part, their actions and reactions are identical. But imagine a single character in their place reacting with the same nonchalant deadpan. Funny? Maybe. But not a tenth as funny as Aykroyd and Belushi deadpanning in unison. This is a highly nuanced clown double act. They only really argue twice; both times, Elwood ends the argument by performing an insane manouvre with the car. They’re never apart for the entire film. If I recall correctly the only times they’re not in the same space are when Jake tells Elwood to start the car at Bob’s, when Elwood hits on Twiggy, and when Elwood sprays the glue on the winnebago gas pedal.
Back to story structure. There are three cleanly defined acts:
- In Act I, Jake gets out of jail, they visit the Penguin and Curtis and learn that the orphanage is facing closure, then they go listen to the Reverend Cleophus James where Jake has a religious epiphany and their quest to reunite the band begins. Along the way, we get two antagonists: the cops, and the Illinois Nazis.
- In Act II, they gather up the band, get their gear together, and finally make it to the gig. New antagonists include Carrie Fisher’s Mystery Woman, the Good Old Boys, and Bob from Bob’s Country Bunker. (For all intents and purposes, Bob and the Good Old Boys are the same antagonist.)
- Act III is a straight-up chase scene beginning where the Bros drive from the Palace Hotel Ballroom to the Cook County Assessor’s Office, pursued by an exponentially increasing number of cops. (And by the Nazis and the Boys.)
What’s interesting here is that the act breaks all hook onto the quest to get the money for the orphanage, but none of them hook on to any sort of character-to-character conflict. The character-to-character conflict is extremely simple: with the exception of the Mystery Woman, all the antagonists are minding their own business when they encounter humilation at the hands of the Brothers Blues. (And the Mystery Woman, as we learn late in the film, has a similar tale.) The Illinois Nazis are certainly a bunch of douchebags, but dramatically speaking they don’t have any villainous intent – they’re just out for revenge. Similarly the Good Old Boys, Bob, and the cops. Though Bob earns douchepoints for not comping them on their liquor bill after they rocked the joint so hard.
While there’s remarkably little conflict from a dramaturgical point of view, the act breaks are robust.
THE BUY-IN: ESCALATING OUTRAGEOUSNESS
By the third act, cop cars are crashing by the dozens, Keystone-Kops-like SWAT teams are hut-hut-hutting down the sides of buildings, and Nazis are freefalling through the sky like Wile E Coyote. We happily roll with it, because the outrageousness has been ramped up gradually. Let’s take a look.
The film opens with images of industrial desolation and takes us into a lengthy opening in which Jake is discharged from jail. Two things jump out about this pre-credit sequence:
- There is no music
- We do not see the brothers’ faces
It is only when the brothers reunite that the soundtrack kicks into gear with the opening chords of “She Caught The Katy” and the camera is allowed to see Jake and Elwood’s faces – only when they are together that they are, for our purposes, a character.
The grittiness of the jail release sequence (at least until Frank Oz shows up) also serves to provide a sort of grounding.
So. Time for some gags. It starts small. Jake lights his cigarette, then tosses the dashboard lighter out the window. This is an appetizer to soften the audience up for the real buy-in: Elwood stuntdrives the card over the raised bridge. We, the audience, know the car probably didn’t really jump the bridge. But collectively we buy it. “Okay, cute,” we think. “He jumped the bridge.” It appeals to our sense of fun.
This is all the foot in the door that Landis and Aykroyd need. Next, the orphanage doors open and close by themselves – or is it just the wind? – and Sister Mary briefly moves as if floating in the air. We roll with it. Gospel-infused churchgoers fly improbably through the air; the heavens open and a light of divine energy strikes Jake. (“DO YOU SEE THE LIGHT BOY?”) We roll with it.
Now, we’re bought in and they can do anything they want. The subtlest form in which this licence works is in the chase scenes: in the mall, and later in act III. Since we’ve bought in to the Looney Tunes logic, we know that no one is going to get hurt when the Blues Brothers drive into the mall. And it doesn’t surprise us that a line of cop cars blithely crashes in after them, wreaking a swath of destruction, instead of setting up a police cordon around the mall and storming the place on foot. The idea that the cops would act sensibly never occurs to us. By act III the filmmakers are cheerfully violating the laws of physics, a far cry from the somber walk to freedom that faceless Jake Blues takes in the film’s opening moments.
UNITY: CHARACTER AND MUSIC
Aykroyd and Landis don’t punch it too hard, but the setup for the characters is pretty clean. They lay it out in the first scene with Curtis (Cab Calloway): Curtis and Sister Mary (“the Penguin”) were the only real family these orphan kids had; they spent all their time in the basement with Curtis, listening to the blues. Tellingly, their identical wardrobes – which, like their faces, like the blues music, only enter the film when the brothers are united – match that of their father figure.
After the one scene, they never mention it again. But the scene provides the context for all the music in the film and their relationship to it as little white kids that adopted the blues as their music. Their love of the blues mirrors that of Aykroyd and Belushi – and of much of the film’s audience. (Me, for example.) The guest artists – James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Cab Calloway – are goliaths of soul. (Throw in a quick walk-on from John Lee Hooker, while you’re at it.) In each number, the (black) guest artist is given the spotlight to perform a number in its entirety. Jake and Elwood dance along as best they can, never doing too good a job, always being white guys, totally but dorkily committed to their love of R&B. All four songs advance the plot in at least a cursory way. In a sense, each of the four is a gatekeeper there to facilitate a waypoint: the receipt of their holy mission, the assembly of the band, the procuring of their instruments, and the commencement of their big show.
When the Blues Brothers do take the stage, it’s at a country bar – where, backed by their mixed-race band, they launch into a kickin R&B number only to find themselves scrambling to find some country music – white music – that they actually know. Finally, they get to do the show at the Palace, where we see them perform “Everybody Needs Somebody”, then embark on a merry car chase to the strains of “Sweet Home Chicago”.
IN CONCLUSION: THIS MOVIE STILL ROCKS
So what might look like a series of unrelated events with no dramatic conflict is actually a tightly constructed film in which character, tone, comic structure and musical grammar are unified into a single joke: two deadpan straight men in an outrageous world that they never quite manage to fit in to. This kind of unity can only happen with a tight creative team, especially when tone is such a critical element.
A duo act with two deadpan characters swearing a blue streak. Is it any wonder that when I grew up I produced work like this?
The Blues Brothers is a masterpiece. Thanks to Dan, John, John, and everyone else involved in this great film that still brings me so much enjoyment.