Saturday, June 20, 2015

I Have Complicated Feelings About This

Last month we lost a giant of rhythm and blues music, Riley B (B.B.) [Blues Boy] King. So, it seemed bashert when I popped in a DVD this weekend to watch the (unfortunately terrible) John Landis movie, Into the Night. The DVD's sole extra is a long featurette interview with B.B. King. Landis, director of the Blues Brothers, is, no surprise, a huge R&B fan, and the Blues Brothers is no doubt responsible for turning generations of clueless white kids onto the likes of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and John Lee Hooker. The problematic racial dynamics of The Blues Brothers is something that's been on my mind for a while and I want to write something longer about whether it's possible to still enjoy the movie if you're, well, if you're me.

Anyhooooooo.... Into the Night. Man, what a bad movie. I don't really understand what the point was. The movie barely has a story, though it does have a very sexy, young Jeff Goldblum and momentarily naked Michelle Pfeiffer (my god, what a gorgeous woman!). But other than that? John Landis plays one of a gang of 'Iranian' thugs and, I'm sorry, I laughed. With a beard he reminds me of my brother, not quite white, not quite something else. I think that Ashkenazi American Jews get a thrill out of pushing the boundaries of their 'whiteness' by imagining scenarios where they pass as Other. I will give Landis credit, this isn't just a case of gratuitous (Iranian-face????). The movie is from the early '80s and explicitly references the then recent events of the expulsion of the Shah and brings us back to a time of the Iranian hostage crisis, and the shift of Iran from a more open, cosmopolitan (in some ways) place to a site of extreme fundamentalism. OK, actually, I don't think it's excusable, and wouldn't fly in 2015, but it is what it is.

What bothered me the most was the promotional video that accompanied the interview with King. It's King, 'backed up' by Dan Ackroyd, Michelle Pfeiffer, Steve Martin, Jeff Goldblum and Eddie Murphy. Murphy seems to be the only one who actually knows how to play the instrument he's miming (drums) while the rest are just... UGH. As I'm sure you know, Ackroyd was one half of the Blue Brothers and this is hardly his first time inserting himself into a genuine performance of African-American musical genius while doing... well, nothing of note. You see what I'm talking about? White people with no (musical) talent somehow packaging black talent and putting their no-talent asses front and center? Like, uhh, why did you think that was ok? Anyway, here's the video.

(My god, Jeff Goldblum is so freaking hot, I can't deal.)

Unfortunately, the black musician backed up by white stars miming was an 80s trope. See Billy Ocean's theme song for Jewel of the Nile.

I guess my question is, can there be a place for white artists with genuine love for, say, black music, to incorporate that music into their work, in a collaborative, non-exploitive way? For example, as I said above, The Blues Brothers, despite its uncomfortable dynamic, is still an incredible showcase for the artists who appear in it. And Landis is a true fan. His interview with King is terrific, and valuable. It's also quite interesting to hear Landis talk about how it was important to him to have King have a substantial role not just in the title and end songs, but in creating a unique score for the film, one that reflected King's unique talents.

I think, for me,  the way I can still enjoy stuff like this is to articulate the uncomfortable racial dynamic and understand what is, or isn't, ok, without giving everything a pass just because I enjoyed it when I was 15.

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