Below I’ve excerpted some of my remarks from a panel on the 1980s Road Movie at the Society of Cinema and Media Studies meeting in Montreal, QC. The presentation, “Soul in the Rear View Mirror,” addressed the function of nostalgia for soul music in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers. The full text is available HERE.
(***)For the last few years, I have been working on a project for Oxford Univeristy Press called Back to the Fifties, which examines the explosion of Fifties nostalgia in the US from the early 1970s to the late 1980s. (***)This period in American history saw Hollywood and popular music produce a slew of “pop nostalgia” texts. I’ve noticed an uptick in SCMS panels talking about nostalgia, and I think that’s great. Because too often, I think, we have brushed away the concept of nostalgia as inherently ahistorical, as a product of postmodernist aesthetics or neoconservative politics. I want, both here and in my work elsewhere, to directly challenge that tendency. In my presentation today I want to think about how The Blues Brothers mobilizes both the structure of the road movie and nostalgic affect to comment on both the cultural and material segregation of Reagan Era America.
I don’t know how many of you have watched The Blues Brothers recently, but my initial response to watching it for the first time since I saw it on TBS in the mid-1990s was—and I have this in my notes–: “Wow, this is some weird movie.” Imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that Roger Ebert’s January 1, 1980 review published in the Chicago Sun-Times begins with the line, (***) “This is some weird movie.” Not to brag, but me and ol’ Roger are right on the money in this one. The movie is 2 and a half hours long, features almost no capable actors (John Candy is as good as it gets in this one), it has totally unnecessary plot elements (why is Carrie Fisher in this movie again?) and explosions, and has about three too many antagonists. And yet, the whole film is pretty entertaining, and for a film that is about two white guys that call themselves “the Blues Brothers,” it largely avoids the kinds of cultural appropriation that you might expect. (***)
With all of that said, I did experience some concern in preparing for this panel, as I wondered more than once if the film really belonged to the genre. In many respects, The Blues Brothers (1980) does not match conventional understandings of the road movie. While Michael Atkinson has argued that the road movie is motivated by “a last ditch search for self,” The Blues Brothers’ protagonists, Jake and Elwood Blues (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) do not really experience any inner transformation. Nor do Jake and Elwood take to the road to escape the domestic trappings of home or to rebel against the restrictive codes of society—other than traffic laws, of course. On the contrary, the brothers Blues ride in service of God and County–the film’s action is motivated by their attempt to pay the county tax bill of the Catholic orphanage where they were raised. If, however, (***), as Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark argue, the road movie is often Hollywood’s response to “periods whose dominant ideologies generate fantasies of escape and opposition,” we might understand The Blues Brothers as a road movie particularly produced by US historical and social conditions of 1980, and the types of “fantasies of escape and opposition” it offers register on both a spatial and temporal plane.
As I have written elsewhere, the fantasies of escape in 1980s America often took the form of nostalgia. This was certainly the case in Hollywood film, but the popular music industries in the US also got in on the act. In response to the fragmentation of rock audiences, the resentment toward new musical forms, and flagging album sales, record and radio companies turned to rock’s roots in rhythm and blues, and the Black communities that fostered it. The Blues Brothers is a particularly apt road movie example to understand this phenomenon, as it came from taking a musical performance on the road (The band toured in 1978 to support their double-platinum album Briefcase Full of Blues). In this presentation I will argue that The Blues Brothers’ revision of road movie conventions can be understood as part of a broader cultural discourses of nostalgia and national identity that played out across the media industries in the 1980s.