Monday, January 19, 2015

1980 Week: The Blues Brothers

          The first and arguably best movie derived from Saturday Night Live characters, The Blues Brothers is a gigantic 10-course meal of a movie. It’s an action picture, a comedy, a musical, and a social satire. Yet the film, which was written by star Dan Aykroyd and director John Landis, is hardly to everyone’s taste. Those who quickly lose patience with car chases, for instance, will find some scenes interminable. For viewers who lock into the movie’s more-is-more groove, however, The Blues Brothers is a nonstop parade of bizarre sight gags, ingenious character flourishes, and vivacious musical numbers.
          Best of all, the title characters translate to the big screen beautifully, because Aykroyd employs the same gift for imagining the universes surrounding his creations that he later brought to Ghostbusters (1984), which he cowrote with Harold Ramis. Instead of pummeling one joke into the dirt, the sad fate of most recurring SNL characters given the feature-film treatment, Aykroyd uses the main gag of the Blues Brothers sketches as the starting point for a proper story that’s populated with fully realized supporting characters. The Blues Brothers might not be great cinema, per se, but it’s made with geunine craftsmanship.
          Whereas on SNL the Blues Brothers mostly just performed soul tunes with accompanying physical-comedy shtick, The Blues Brothers gives the characters backstories, distinct personalities, and a mission. A mission from God, that is. Soon after fastidious Elwood Blues (Aykroyd) picks up his slovenly brother, Jake Blues (John Belushi), from prison after a three-year stint for armed robbery, viewers discover their shared history. The brothers were raised in a Chicago orphanage overseen by stern nun Sister Mary Stigmata (Kathleen Freeman), and the orphanage’s kindly custodian, Curtis (Cab Calloway), taught the boys to love black music. Upon reaching adulthood, Ellwood and Jake formed a hot band, but the group fell apart when Jake went to jail. Upon reuniting with Curtis and Sister Mary, the brothers discover that the orphanage will close unless back taxes are paid, so Elwood and Jake contrive to reform their band for a benefit concert. That’s easier said than done, since the musicians have started new lives.
          Additionally, the Blues Brothers gather enemies at every turn, pissing off a country-and-western band, a gaggle of neo-Nazis, a psychotic mystery woman (Carrie Fisher) who uses heavy artillery while trying to kill Jake, and the entire law-enforcement community of the greater Chicago metropolitan area. Sprinkled throughout the brothers’ wild adventures are fantastic musical numbers featuring James Brown, Calloway, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin, to say nothing of the Blues Brothers Band itself, which features real-life veterans of the ’60s soul-music scene. Landis treats this movie like his personal playground, throwing in everything from mass destruction to ornate choreography, and his affection for the material is contagious. (A few years later, in 1983, Landis reaffirmed his musical bona fides by directing Michael Jackson’s groundbreaking “Thriller” video.)
          What makes The Blues Brothers so unique is its three-pronged attack. In addition to telling an enjoyable men-on-a-mission story (the source of the action scenes), the picture delivers innumerable gags as well as the aforementioned musical highlights. Each element receives the same careful attention. For instance, The Blues Brothers features so many quotable lines (“How much for your women?”) that it’s easily one of the funniest movies featuring actors who gained fame on SNL, which is saying a lot. There’s even room in the mix for wry supporting turns by John Candy, Fisher, and Henry Gibson, as well as wink-wink cameos by movie directors including Frank Oz and Steven Spielberg. Speaking of cameos, try to name another movie that features both Chaka Khan (she’s one of Brown’s backup singers) and the future Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens).
          Long story short, if you can’t find at least one thing to enjoy in The Blues Brothers—if not a dozen of them—then you’re not looking hard enough.

The Blues Brothers: RIGHT ON


Joe Martino said...

John Landis tells a funny story about how one Saturday morning he walked outside his house to find, in his driveway, a five hundred page script for THE BLUES BROTHERS written by Aykroyd. A collection of random scenes and jokes. No shape or form. It was John's job to find the movie in it.

Will Errickson said...

Pure entertainment. Some of my favorite comedy moments ever are in this, particularly the fate of those "Illinois Nazis."

By Peter Hanson said...

Agreed, Tommy -- endlessly quotable and watchable. For instance... ELWOOD: "It's a hundred and six miles to Chicago, we've got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses." JAKE: "Hit it."

Kevin Mac said...

Not just the quotes, but there are countless throwaway little gags. Like during the respect number the boys are sitting on stools at the counter, with heads down. Trying to steer clear of the musical marital strife going on. For 20 seconds they jump up and do some background dancing before plopping back down in shame position. Seems like such a small moment, but add them all up there's real subtle comedy power going on. Like most of us, when not in the spotlight they live life in the small moments.

Gotta love the minimal character development too. Such small touches. One likes toasted white bread, and the other a whole chicken and a coke? So much of the movie simply has to be in-jokes of everybody involved.