How White Privilege Keeps Saving Music
By now we all know that a young man from Canada by the name of Ryan Gosling saved jazz, in La La Land (2016), but as far as saving traditionally African-American musical genres goes, two white guys beat him to it by a cool three dozen years.
Indeed, and against all odds, the comedic actors John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd already single-handedly (make that double-handedly) saved soul music, as documented in The Blues Brothers (1980). To this end, Ryan Gosling is standing on the shoulders of two very white (and rather hairy) giants.
The opening scene of The Blues Brothers sees Elwood Blues pull up to Joliet Correctional Facility, to pick up his just released brother Jake. In a souped up cop car that he picked up at a police auction. While armed guards watch casually from their posts.
Try doing that while black.
The brothers roll into Chicago and drop by a suburban Baptist church for a serving of divine inspiration. Although dressed like a pair of Tarantino hit men, they arouse no suspicion in the African-American congregation; in fact, they are treated as the guests of honor. The entire stirring and uplifting musical production that follows — the gospel choir, the dancers, the minister (James Brown) — are all props to the white duo’s narrative. They stand poker-faced behind the pews until the light of heaven breaks through the stained-glass windows and envelopes Jake, confirming the brothers’ suspicion that they are on a mission from God.
Endorsed by God — Check. Approved by the black community — Check. The brothers are off to get the band back together. They hit some resistance trying to recruit Matt “Guitar” Murphy, who is now busy running a soul food establishment with his wife, played by none other than the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.
Elwood and Jake stroll into the diner, like two Murray Hill hipsters heading uptown to Sylvia’s in Harlem for a Sunday brunch of fried chicken and mimosas. In a memorable line, Mrs. Murphy tries to dismiss them, telling her husband:
The Blues Brothers? Shit. They still owe you money, fool.
Luckily, the allure of joining a long-shot troupe of ex-convicts and former red-jacket lounge singers trumps the obligations of marriage, work and community. Matt Murphy hands in his mop to chase his shot at making music history.
It’s a win-win for Elwood and Jake — their ten-man ensemble, complete with a three-piece brass section, now has two black guys. This soul band is Legit.
Here they are, tearing up the stage in the final concert number. Behold this racially diverse crowd, celebrating bell bottoms, unruly hairdos and the triumphant revival of a great American musical genre.
After leading state and local law enforcement through two epic car chases, trashing the Dixie Square shopping mall, causing a pile-up of several dozen police cars, and prompting a large detachment of the U.S. Army to descend on Chicago City Hall with tanks and helicopters, the Blues Brothers do end up back in jail — but manage to retain their instruments, and their celebrity status, leading the inmates to one final mess hall riot to the sounds of Jailhouse Rock.
Remember, it’s a comedy — funny what you can get away with privilege on your side.
Stay tuned for future installments of this series: