A couple weeks ago, in one single weekend, The Wife and I watched not one but two movies (along with The Daughter for one of them) with the following plot: guy finds out that an important piece of real estate from his past is about to be sold, so he decides to help preserve the important plot of land by getting his old group of cohorts back together for the first time in years and putting on a show. The first movie was The Blues Brothers. The second was The Muppets. Talk about nothing new under the sun – "Hey, let's put on a show!" is an old chestnut of a plot. It's all about the people putting on the show, and the show itself.
The Blues Brothers is something I'd completely forgotten about, to be honest. I hadn't seen it in many years, and that was in a bowdlerized TBS-for-teevee edition. I honestly remembered very little about it other than the music and the "get the band back together" plot. But then, there's really not a whole lot to it outside of those things. So, let's compare and contrast the two films:
In The Blues Brothers, the Catholic orphanage that Jake and Elwood Blues grew up in is about to be sold unless the City can be paid by a certain date. Jake and Elwood learn this from the terrifying nun who raised them; this woman is so scary that when she retreats into her office after the meeting is over, she seems to move without walking. Scary. It's oddly endearing, though, that the Blues Brothers want to save this unpleasant looking place, and decide to do so after they have a religious epiphany – their "mission from God", pronounced gaaahhd -- when they accidentally find themselves at a service in a black church where the music is led by a pastor who looks and sounds an awful lot like James Brown.
The Muppets, on the other hand, has the fabled Muppet Theater, which hasn't hosted a show in years, about to be sold to an oil man. Boo hiss, evil oil men! Here I think The Muppets missed an opportunity. The evil oil man should have been played by either Larry Hagman or Patrick Duffy. In The Muppets, the scene where the good guys learn of the dastardly plan to sell their beloved theater is pretty prosaic – in fact, it was really the only time in the movie that I felt the plot's gears a-grindin' away – but at least it's over quickly.
In The Blues Brothers, we have the Bluesmobile, an old police car that Elwood has purchased and which seems virtually indestructible throughout the entire movie, no matter how many times Elwood drives it with the gas fully floored or how many object it hits – well, until the very end, after it reaches its final destination, when, in one of the film's best sight-gags, the car falls apart as soon as Jake and Elwood get out. It's hard not to love that old car, though, and it does bring back certain memories to see all the cars in this film, those old 1970s barge-like vehicles that dominated the roadways. At one point, Elwood gets gas and then says to Jake, "We've got a hundred miles to go and a full tank of gas. We'll make it!" Wow, how things were when a hundred miles constituted quite a journey on a single tank of gas!
As for The Muppets, the car itself isn't terribly special, but it does boast a couple of nifty abilities: traveling by map (in which case a long journey is shorted by superimposing it on a map that traces the course with a red line, not unlike the Indiana Jones flicks), and traveling by montage (in which case a montage of scenes whips us through the journey). These abilities are actually mentioned by the characters – "Let's travel by map!" -- which is a delightful thing to do because The Muppet Show was always breaking the fourth wall.
The Bad Guys
Here I definitely have to give the edge to The Blues Brothers. In The Muppets, we have your standard evil businessman, who plans to buy the building, raze it, and drill for oil. Nothing terribly original here, even if I'm totally sympathetic to the depiction of the businessman as an evil shill. (Suck it, FOX News.)
The Blues Brothers, on the other hand, has Jake and Elwood incurring the wrath of an entire motley crew of oddballs throughout the entire film, sometimes without even being aware of it. They get cops after them, naturally (driving your car into and through the entire length of a shopping mall will do that). They get a country band after them after they steal their gig. They get a crowd of neo-Nazis after them after they drive right through their demonstration, forcing them all to jump off the bridge they've been blocking. And for some reason, there's an insane woman tracking them, making frequent unsuccessful attempts to kill them in spectacular fashion. Interestingly, the 'villain' behind the original threat to the building that they are trying to save isn't much of a villain at all. It's a faceless government agency that doesn't care at all about the building, as long as it gets paid, either by the current tenant or the next one.
Here, The Muppets has a built-in advantage, because we already know the gang. In The Blues Brothers, we have to meet each individual band member and learn something about them. But this also leads to a lot of great stuff, as this is how a lot of the film's musical numbers end up taking place, including one very memorable one with Aretha Franklin (who is not in the band).
This leads to...
The Blues Brothers is loaded with bit parts filled by great blues musicians, right up to cameos by Ray Charles and Cab Calloway. The Muppets doesn't include any big names within the group, but there are guest cameos along the way, which is a lot of fun. I wondered if some of these cameos are going to seem a lot less fresh in a few years, when some of these folks are less famous, and that will probably happen, but then, it happened with The Muppet Show too. When we watch the old shows on DVD, I have to explain to The Daughter who people like Joel Grey and Sandy Duncan are.
One particular cameo appearance by a Currently Famous Person in The Muppets filled me with glee, but I won't reveal which one, for those who haven't seen it. I had no idea he was in the movie, though, until he appeared.
Both films are wonderful in this regard. The Blues Brothers is loaded with magnificent, wonderful blues music. The Muppets has some new songs that are good enough, but it also throws in a gorgeous performance of "The Rainbow Connection" and ends with...yeah, I shouldn't spoil that, either. The end credits number of The Muppets is so good, though, that I didn't even pay attention to the credits at all. I wonder if that frustrates the people whose names appear onscreen at that point?
I'm not actually keeping score, here. But both movies are so clearly cut from some of the same cloth, even though one is full of raunchy, violent humor and the other is, well, the Muppets, that I couldn't help but think of each one while watching the other.
On The Muppets specifically, I greatly appreciated the movie's general tone more than anything else. I like irony and dark humor as much as anyone (I also watched Inglourious Basterds recently, with great relish), but the Muppets' approach has been gentle humor all along. Which isn't to say that they don't occasionally make jokes that bite, but when they do, the jokes are usually clever enough that you don't even notice the bite. One of my favorite sight-gags in the film comes when Kermit and Miss Piggy are talking for the first time in years. They are walking the streets of Paris, having a heart-to-heart...but Kermit is wearing a black turtleneck. That cracked me up.
I've seen other reviews of The Muppets that take the film to task for the paint-by-numbers romance between Jason Segel and Amy Adams; it's the typical "girl wants guy to pay more attention to her than to the other thing that has consumed his passions for years" tale, really an old chestnut of a story. But I think that the film makes that storyline seem so stale that I have to think it's on purpose, as if to provide a contrast that makes the world of the Muppets seem more real than it actually is. The first scene involves a song-and-dance number with Jason Segel leading his entire town in a "Isn't it happy to be alive!" kind of peppy tune, but as soon as he departs the screen, the entire cast remains onscreen to slump down in a "Thank God that's over" kind of moment. The movie is winking at the audience. Ditto the fact that the movie gives us a Kermit the Frog who hasn't performed in years, and yet when he turns up in the movie, he's not bitter or angry at all. He's just stopped performing. Why? I certainly didn't care...but I've seen other reviews that point this out as a 'flaw' in the film. But come on, folks – do we really need to delve into the existential quandaries of a Muppet frog? I find it quite interesting that when we get to the now-reclusive Kermit, he's just chosen to be reclusive, that's all. He's not your washed-up act trying to fight off the memories of past glory by drinking too much.
The Blues Brothers struck me in a similar vein. Despite the fact that it's a lot more foul-mouthed and violent, it is, in its way, as zany and comical as The Muppets, and I found that it approached its characters and its humor with warmth in a lot of the same ways. These guys have been performing musicians for quite a long time, but they're confused when they get a gig in a bar and find that the stage is secured top-to-bottom with chicken wire. "Why the chicken wire?" they wonder, only to find out the first time a rowdy patron tosses a beer in their direction. Both movies are, essentially, live-action cartoons with a lot of great music, and there really are worse things for a movie to be. Both are about getting the band back together. At the end of The Blues Brothers, we haven't seen the last time the band will play together. Will the Muppets continue to play together, though? I suppose we'll see.