Vatican: ‘Blues ‘Catholic Classic’


L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, has praised—wait for it--“The Blues Brothers,” the 1980 comedy starring John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd as a classic Catholic film.


As moviegoers of a certain age will remember, the film focuses on Jake and Elwood Blues, two blues musicians “on a mission from God” to save the Catholic orphanage in which they were raised from financial ruin.  Gian Maria Van, the paper’s chief editor, in a front-page story on Wednesday, noted that the film’s “Catholic and spiritual heft were not lacking,” and found the film “rich with ideas.”  He also pointed to a photo of the young Pope John Paul II hanging on a wall in one scene from the movie as evidence of its Catholic underpinnings.  After the duo has decided to help Sister Mary Stigmata’s orphanage, the brothers let nothing get in the way of their salvation of the orphanage.  This too earned L’Osservatore’s praise.  “For them, this Catholic institution is their only family--and they decide to save it at any cost.”  “The Blues Brothers” is therefore, “a memorable film and, judging by the facts, a Catholic one.” 

All I can say is: Really?  Really?

As The New York Post pointed out, this effectively reverses the original review of the Office for Film and Broadcasting at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (then the National Conference of Catholic Bishops), who reviewed it thusly:

The plot is interspersed with scenes of wholesale destruction and frenzied chases which are spectacularly unfunny and uninvolving….Some good musical portions from Cab Calloway and Ray Charles, but not enough depth from director John Landis to save this zany comedy from milking cheap laughs from rough language and crude situations.' 

The Bishops Conference dismissed the film with an A-III label, “For Adults Only.”  

In probably the most overtly “Catholic” scene in the movie Jake and Elwood meet with “The Penguin,” the sister-in-charge at the orphanage, in a scene liberally sprinkled with obscenities from the boys and, also, liberal beatings from the nun.  These days I can easily imagine this scene being seen by some commentators not as a celebration of Catholicism but an indictment of it.  L'Ossservatore, however, terms the sister “mean but affectionate in her own way.”  Check out the scene above (obscenity alert) and see what you think.

One man’s anti-Catholic screed is another man’s Catholic classic.

James Martin, SJ


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Jeffrey Connors
8 years 7 months ago

One man’s anti-Catholic screed is another man’s Catholic classic. How true... Henri Nouwen hated this movie, and there weren't many things that got his back up.  In his book 'Peacework: Prayer, Resistance, Community' he wrote:

Not long ago I visited an exclusive American prep school. Most of the boys and girls came from well-to-do families, most were well educated, and all of them were very bright. They were friendly, well-mannered, and ambitious; it was not hard for me to imagine many of them eventually holding important positions, driving big cars, and living in large homes.One evening I joined these students in watching a movie in the school's auditorium. It was The Blues Brothers. I could not believe what I was seeing and hearing. The screen was filled with the wild destruction of supermarkets, houses, and cars, while the auditorium was filled with excited shouts coming from the mouths of these well-mannered, bright young people. While they were watching the total devastation of all the symbols of their own prosperous lives, they yelled and screamed as if their team had won a championship. As cars were being smashed, houses set on fire, and high-rises pulled down, my excited neighbor told me that this was one of the most expensive 'funny' movies ever made. Millions of dollars had been spent to film a few hours of what I considered to be death. No human beings were killed. It was supposed to bring a good laugh. But nothing human beings made was left untouched by the destructive activities of The Blues Brothers.What does it mean that ambitious young Americans are being entertained by millions of dollars worth of destruction in a world in which many people die from fear, lack of food, and ever-increasing violence? Are these the future leaders of a generation whose primary task is to prevent a nuclear war and stop the arms race?I report this seemingly innocent event to point to the fact that much contemporary entertainment is designed to feed our fascination with violence and death. Long hours of our lives are spent filling our minds with images not only of disintegrating skyscrapers and cars, but also of shootings, torture scenes, and other manifestations of human violence. Once I met a Vietnam veteran on an airplane. He told me that as a youngster he had seen so many people being killed on TV that once he got to Vietnam it had been hard for him to believe that those whom he killed would not stand up again and act in the next program. Death had become an unreal act. Vietnam woke him up to the truth that death is real and final and very ugly.When I am honest with myself I have to confess that I, too, am often seduced by the titillating power of death. I am fascinated by someone who walks a tightrope strung over a gaping abyss. I bite my nails in excitement when I see trapeze artists making somersaults without a safety net beneath them. I look with open eyes and mouth at stunt pilots, motorcyclists, and race car drivers who put their lives at risk in their desire to break a record or perform a dazzling feat. In this respect, I am little different from the thousands of Romans who were entertained by the death games of the gladiators, or from the crowds who in the past and even the present are attracted to places of public execution.Any suggestion that these real or imagined death games are healthy ways to deal with our 'death-instincts' or 'aggressive fantasies' needs to be discarded as unfounded, unproved, or simply irresponsible. Acting out death wishes either in fact or in the imagination can never bring us any closer to peace, whether it is peace of heart or peace in our life together.

we vnornm
8 years 7 months ago
I enjoyed the movie tremendously, although I recognize someone could come to the opposite conclusion.
The goodness of heart of jake and Elwood, two "losers", greatly contrasted the laissez faire and uninvolved attitude of the rest of the citizens of Chicago: they wanted to save the orphanage. In doing so, they were iconoclasts in the original sense of the word-they smashed the worshipped icons of society, houses malls, cars. 
I grew up in Chicago and recognized nearly every scene. The antics were so incongruous you just knew it wasn't for real, that it was for laughs.
Chicago was an is a highly segregated city. Jake and Elwood's incursion into various parts of the South Side, their participation in some of the joyous aspects of that culture (the Church scene with Jake dancing) showed a readiness to engage everyone, White or Black, and to not remain in the bastions of the Great North Side.
The marches of the Ku Klux Klan in Chicago and Skokie, still a stain, were confronted by Jake and Elwood directly in a way that the courts dare not go.
In an unexpected and curious way, this movie helped reunite Chicago and bolster civic pride. Mayor Daley I had died six years previously and the riots of the 60s were still in short term memory. Jake and Elwood literally interacted with every part of the city. The filming of the scenes was neat. I saw the car dropped from a helicopter, not far from Lake Shore Drive. If you know Chicago and watch the day car chase scenes or the storming of the civic center, the strange shadows meant that filming was done not long after 5 am in the morning. Jake and Elwood even led strait-laced Mayor Jane Byrne for a walk on the wild side.
Arethra Franklin-Ray Charles-Bob's Good Old Boys-Cook County Assessor-Old Fashioned Nuns-Park Ridge-Lower Wacker Drive, and EVEN WRIGLEY FIELD.
I've walked out of violent movies, but for some reason, it was the charm and basic goodness of these two losers who had once been orphans-as they befriended and worked with the marginalized, those persons ignored by the shoppers in the suburban mall or the tall luxury high rises. 
So that's my take, but I grew up there and may be viewing the film from this unique perspective,
Mary Kennedy
8 years 7 months ago
as a Chicagoan, Bill, I second that emotion.  And it had a great soundtrack, too.  Who could forget, eg., Ray Charles' "Shake a tailfeather" or Aretha's reprise of "Think?"
8 years 7 months ago
I can only imagine how much fuss a few Catholic critics could make about such distinction for this film because of the scene when Jake received his personal effects from prison, which included an unused prophylactic and a ''soiled'' one.
We all know that no good Catholic out there would use such an item.
Chris Boscia
8 years 7 months ago
The movie is "Catholic" not for the reasons that L'Osservatore Romano mentioned, but because the movie is fundamentally about redemption and helping others, despite the cost. The movie opens with the main character, Jake Blues, getting picked up from prison by his brother. This man is obviously a sinner, but he's done his time. He's looking to turn his life around and finds out that his beloved orphanage is going to close. He essentially sets out on a mission not only to save the orphanage, but to save himself. He confronts past sin (the Carrie Fischer character) and faces new ethical dilemmas (actually owing a venue money for drinking too much beer, beyond the compensation for the performance). All the chases are the result of the n'er-do-well nature of two guys trying to make things right. And they pay the ultimate price at the end, getting the money to the tax assessor and risking imprisonment for it. The movie ends with the Blues Brothers (and their band of brothers!) entertaining fellow prisoners and guards with music.

Is anyone missing the Catholic element here? If I go back to high school teaching, this film is first on my list!

p.s. Henri Nouwen's "wounded healer" is the worst thing that ever happened to campus ministry and student life staff at today's universities. His quote above reminds me how out of touch he was with young people...


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