Movies We Like
The Blues Brothers
There was a time in 1978 when John Belushi had the number one movie in theaters— National Lampoon’s Animal House. He also starred on the massively popular Saturday Night Live and his band The Blues Brothers, a group he co-fronted along with SNL co-star Dan Aykroyd, had the number one album in the country. The success of their album Briefcase Full of Blues led to a film adaptation, The Blues Brothers—the first and still the best of many films to originate from SNL skits. It’s a loud musical-action-comedy film that works in all three genres while boasting some great car chases, stellar music, and staying very funny throughout.
Fresh from a stint in prison Jake (Belushi) reunites with his brother Elwood (Aykroyd). Spurred on by an old friend, Curtis (Cab Calloway) they visit their childhood orphanage and learn that it’s on the verge of being shut down for owing back taxes. After a vision “from God” in church they decide to reform their old blues band and raise money with a large charity concert. Most of their bandmates have contempt for them and need convincing to reunite. Along the way they tend to wreak havoc and leave large swaths of destruction wherever they go which leads the police after them. They also create foes with a country/western band, The Good Ol' Boys (led by Charles Napier), when The Blues Brothers steal their bar gig. They disrupt a Nazi rally and manage to put a carload of uniformed Nazis on their trail (led by the hilarious Henry Gibson of Nashville). Oh, and Jake’s jilted lover ( played by Carrie Fisher) attacks them with machine guns and flame torches whenever she is able to catch up with them.
Eventually the band does put on a massive concert where you can see what made The Blue Brothers such a popular (though short lived) musical act. Belushi and Aykroyd may be spoofing a rhythm n’ blues act, but their voices are passable and their (cocaine fueled) spastic dancing is a joy to behold. Escaping from their concert they lead hundreds of cops and other enemies on a huge high speed chase to downtown Chicago—the film included the most car crashes in film history up to that point—as they race to pay the IRS the money owed. The stunts and stunt driving in a pre-CGI era are incredibly impressive and they just keep coming.
James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and John Lee Hooker fill the movie with musical performances. As previously mentioned The Blues Brothers started out as a skit on SNL so their tight backing band is composed of top musicians mostly from the SNL house band (a pre-Letterman Paul Shaffer was the musical arranger). Aside from musicians the film is also filled with a number of oddball cameos including John Candy, Twiggy, Steven Spielberg, Steve Lawrence, Frank Oz, and Paul Ruebens. (Keep your eyes peeled for an ever-so-brief Mr. T cameo as an extra on the street filmed before he was famous.)
Coming off of the enormous hit National Lampoon’s Animal House director John Landis and Belushi were hot and went all out on scope and budget. The film, with its bigger-is-funnier approach to action, usually works. The same approach didn’t work as well a year earlier when Belushi and Aykroyd worked with Spielberg on the misfire, 1941. Like the end of Animal House (where the town is destroyed) the pure spectacle of The Blues Brothers helps to give the film different tones which, when meshed together, create most of the humor. (After being chased by hundreds of cops and firemen Jake and Elwood get stuck in a long elevator ride—mayhem outside, “muzak” inside.)
Belushi’s run as a top comic talent was sadly short-lived. After The Blues Brothers he made only two more mostly forgotten films including the dull romantic comedy Continental Divide and the strange black comedy Neighbors (also co-starring Aykroyd). He died of a drug overdose at the age of 33, though like many icons who die premature deaths there are a lot of questions about whether it was actually an accident. It’s too bad he couldn’t have gone further because beyond his self-destructive lifestyle the guy was a real actor. His comedy was rooted in reality, and though he was overweight and not the typical star he also had a sex appeal that you don’t usually find in his types.
Director Landis had some more hits (An American Werewolf in London, Trading Places) but mostly misses (Innocent Blood, Beverly Hills Cop III). He also helmed the inevitable, horrible sequel, Blues Brothers 2000 with John Goodman trying to stuff his feet into Belushi’s old shoes. Landis’s career really took a nosedive after his negligence put him on trial for the onset death of actor Vic Morrow and a child during the making of Twilight Zone: The Movie.
The Blues Brothers was a major film for me when I was 10-years old. I’m not sure how generations since will react to it. Is the scene where Belushi harasses a guy in a fancy restaurant by saying he wants to buy his daughter as funny to others as it was and still is to me? It’s definitely a kind of time capsule, inspired by It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World but with an edgier “SNL in the '70s” druggie sort of approach. It’s big and gaudy such as you might associate with over-produced blockbusters of the ‘80s, but it still has the personal and dark feel of a ‘70s film. It’s a crazy hodgepodge of ideas but unlike most of today’s half-assed comedies that play like a first draft of the script The Blues Brothers does read like Belushi and Aykroyd did hammer out at least a couple drafts of the script and were clear on their goals. It’s too bad that Belushi died and Aykroyd became a bloated bore because it would have been interesting to see where their work together might have gone. There has definitely never been anything like The Blues Brothers since. It’s a funny and odd little treasure on a big, big canvas.