This Looks Terrible! The Return of Bruno (1987)
If you’re black and you want to become successful and famous as a blues musician this is how it generally works. You have to have extraordinary talent and determination because it is almost impossible to make a living, let alone a good, secure (hah!) living as a musician of any sort. That is particularly true of blues, which is not exactly dominating the airwaves or digital sales.
You’ll need to have a deep, intuitive emotional connection to the blues but you’ll also need to work extraordinarily hard for years, decades, perfecting your craft and your instrument. You’ll need to develop thick skin because you’re going to endure constant rejection and financial and professional uncertainty even if you’re among the best in the world at what you do.
You’ll need to learn to play well with others, literally and figuratively, because if you’re a grade-A bluesman or blues woman you’ll regularly collaborate on stage and on record with some of the greatest blues performers alive, and no one wants to be a weak link at a session or at a show.
You won’t just perform the blues, you will live the blues, but it will be worth all the sleepless nights, all the doubt, all the doing without, because playing the blues isn’t something you do. It’s who you are. It’s your destiny, whether you’re able to make a living at it or not.
If you’re a rich white funnyman from the TV and you want to become successful and famous as a blues musician this is how it generally works. Make up a silly name (like “Elwood”, “Jake” or “Bruno”) and an equally silly backstory. Develop a talent show-contender/sloppy bar band level of talent. Learn to play the harmonica well enough that indulgent friends will say, “Wow, you’re really good at that! You should do gigs!” and professional musicians, should you ask their opinion, will just smile Mona Lisa-like and refrain from commenting out of an admirable conviction that if you have nothing nice to say you should say nothing at all.
Congrats! You’re ready for the spotlight, the stage and the recording studio! And unlike your non-famous black peers, commercial success is as certain as it is unwarranted. Soon you’ll be selling out clubs and making movies and vanity videos instead of wasting your time paying dues and refining your craft beyond the “enthusiastic amateur” level.
Instant fame and popularity awaits you, rich white guy half-assedly pursuing a blues career as a goof! Motown, yes Motown, would like to offer you a contract! You’re opening for the Grateful Dead! The label thinks it’d be an awesome idea to do an expensive, star-studded mockumentary/concert film to promote your debut album! Heck, they’ll even give it a push for the prestigious Cable ACE award, the most sought-after accolade in the “biz.” You spent several months dicking around on a harmonica between rehearsals at 30 Rock or practiced the mouth organ while tending bar as a struggling actor. You deserve all of the fame and money that will be thrown at you.
This racist, obnoxious “moonlighting white goof as instant blues superstar” phenomenon at least gave us the Blues Brothers movie, which I have seen and thought and written about enough (I was damn near a lifelong Chicagoan, and that is more or less Chicago’s official movie) to confidently assert that that is a great fucking movie, all things considered.
But it also gave us the notorious 1987 vanity album and video mockumentary/concert film The Return of Bruno, which found a smirking and harmonica-happy Bruce Willis playing the role of Bruno Radolini, an eccentric New Jersey musical genius who flits through the rock era as a Forrest Gump/Zelig figure who is always super-close to colossal, iconic success but somehow ends up just missing out on historic fame.
Decades before Dewey Cox was lurching adorably and hilariously through rock, pop and folk movements of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the strange career of Bruno was witlessly echoing that of The Beatles in ways that are supposed to be cheeky, satirical and tongue-in-cheek but fall into the trap of mistaking clumsy, obvious pop culture references for jokes, which is true of The Return of Bruno as a whole.
It genuinely feels like they could get anyone for Return of Bruno as a celebrity talking head and they did. That is, on some level, impressive, I suppose. Scratch that. It’s very impressive. Willis and his ego fluffers didn’t just get a famous name or two to lend a little dazzle to Willis’ musical mid-life crisis, which is the creative equivalent of a ponytail/earring combo on a balding white man eager to distract attention from signs of age and decay. No, they got everybody. Elton John. A way too game and enthusiastic Michael J. Fox as a Bruno super-fan. Bill Graham. The most impressive, hard-to-get Beach Boy (Brian Wilson) and least impressive, easy-to-get Beatle (Ringo). Grace Slick. The Bee Gees. Paul Stanley.
It all just feels like such a goddamn waste. Bruce Wilson should not have been wasting one of his rare periods of lucidity and sanity from this period on nervously stammering clunky, joke-free exposition vomiting up information about Bruno Radolini.
Willis and his cohorts, who include the wonderfully named writer and producer Paul Flattery, who I imagine got his job due to his willingness to confront powerful people like Willis with harsh truths that will benefit them in the long run, got these luminaries, these Gods, to “gush” about their love for Bruno, and his influence on their music, and his genius, with the monotone, stone-faced affectlessness of hostages reading off demands of their captors.
Using state of the art technology, the special is able to make it look like Bruno and his band are performing in the same kind of contexts as the Beatles, like the grubby but exhilarating and speed-fueled Cavern days and the woozily psychedelic “All You Need Is Love” era but the special’s admirable commitment to realizing the look and feel of these periods is undermined by Bruno mostly just playing the forgettable blues-rock heavy on sass and harmonica and light on authenticity.
There are a handful of good gags sprinkled throughout Return of Bruno, like a bit positing him as part of a “Second American Revolution” pitting itself in direct opposition to the British Invasion but these halfway-inspired jokes are killed in execution. Return of Bruno’s commitment to looking and feeling exactly like its inspiration in the world of fawning rock documentaries extends to being just as unfunny and devoid of laughs as the most straight-faced rockumentary.
The mockumentary half of The Return of Bruno feels more like a video a company might put together for the retirement party of the boss than a professional blues video people should be reasonably be expected to spend good money to buy and then watch and listen to of their own volition.
But it serves an odious purpose: without this tortured, laughless mockumentary section, Return of Bruno would be nothing more than a half hour or so concert video showcase for the forgettable blues-rock styling of Seagrams Golden Wine Cooler pitchman Bruce Willis.
Friend, you know that meme, God give me the confidence of a mediocre white man? That perfectly embodies the unearned cockiness of Willis as a blues howler, harmonica virtuoso, wearer of silly sunglasses and goofy costumes and all-around entertainer.
For Willis, it’s not about interpreting and experiencing the words and emotions of these trusty old blues and soul chestnuts. No, it’s all about sass and attitude, energy and “fun.” In Willis’ blundering hands, this is no longer the music of the oppressed and the defiant. Nope, it’s goofy, empty party music for white people, upbeat, party-hearty music about feeling lowdown.
The Return of Bruno was supposed to be a fun celebration of the blues and a charismatic new multi-media superstar who wasn’t about to let being a rich white famous Republican celebrity keep him from helping himself greedily to the music of the poor black underclass for fun, fame, money and giggles. Instead it feels like a celebration of white male celebrity privilege run amok.
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