According to John Landis, The Blues Brothers was the last movie made under the old studio factory system, in which Universal had everything from the props to the costumes made on the lot. The Blues Brothers feels, indeed, like a transition from the old to the new. It takes the form of a big studio musical, but its execution is all 1980s bigger-is-better filmmaking.
The first movie to expand a sketch from Saturday Night Live, The Blues Brothers was “high concept” before that term even existed. When The Blues Brothers was made, Landis was the go-to comedy director working in Hollywood, having just made National Lampoon’s Animal House,the most successful comedy in movie history. Stars Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi had just ended their time on SNL, possibly the most culturally influential TV show of the late ‘70s. The Blues Brothers was the right movie, hitting at just the right moment. This movie fed an audience leaning toward the sophisticated comedy of Woody Allen and Steve Martin on the one hand and slob comedies like Animal House, Caddyshack, and Meatballs on the other.
The movie itself, despite its winning ingredients, is a big, lumbering, at times awkwardly paced thing that only intermittently comes to life. The screenplay by Aykroyd and Landis is less a script than a scenario. The story of Jake (Belushi) and Elwood (Aykroyd) putting the band back together, in order to raise money to pay off the back taxes owed by the orphanage where they grew up, has a Mickey-and-Judy-let’s-put-on-a-show innocence that’s quite appealing. The problem is that Landis stretches this story to over two hours, which allows for several unnecessary storylines. (Pacing has always been a problem in Landis’ work. It’s telling that his best movie, An American Werewolf in London, is also his shortest.) There are no scenes in The Blues Brothers. The movie consists entirely of sequences, numbers, and set-pieces. Consequently there aren’t any real characters. Everyone is more or less a cast member. As it turns out, this would be the modus operandi for a vast majority of movies made throughout the 1980s.
The problem with The Blues Brothers movie is the concept of the Blues Brothers themselves, a soul gimmick. (The band’s best performance remains their cover of Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man.” The sight of white boy John Belushi proclaiming he has soul is funny and kind of touching.) At the time no one seemed to question or even be concerned with the sight of a couple of white guys performing predominantly black music. (Inexplicably, The Blues Brothers’ Briefcase Full of Blues remains one of the all-time best-selling blues records.) The difference between the Blues Brothers and, say, Elvis or the Stones or Eminem is they rarely attempted to do anything that would test them as performers. They were an instant nostalgia act.
Landis probably knew the appeal of the act was limited and that’s why he added so many subplots, ranging from Illinois Nazis to Illinois state troopers to The Good Ole Boys to Jake’s parole officer to Carrie Fisher chasing the boys in their trademark police car. All of these adversaries have potential, but most of them don’t go anywhere. (The Illinois Nazis unfortunately provide the movie with a gratuitous scene of Henry Gibson shouting ugly rhetoric into a bullhorn.) Landis is clearly emulating It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World, but what made that movie a masterpiece was its gags on top of gags. It also allowed performers like Buddy Hackett, Phil Silvers, Sid Caesar, Ethel Merman, and Jonathan Winters to play characters that showcased their talents. Belushi and Aykroyd are kept mostly in check throughout this movie. Belushi’s kamikaze style is what made his appearances in Animal House and 1941 so memorable. And Aykroyd is best when he uses his Asperger’s-esque detachment to subversive comic effect. (His career performance remains his portrayal of Joe Friday in the underrated Dragnet.) The only sequence where the buried antisocial behavior of their act comes to the surface takes place when they disrupt the peace in a snooty restaurant in order to persuade Mr. Fabulous to join the band.
The musical performances are a mixed bag; small bits of each number indicate just how good they could potentially be. Whatever reservations you may have about Belushi and Aykroyd as bluesmen, the band itself, a combination of Stax musicians and a New York horn section, is always fun to listen to. And a couple of the players manage to emerge as terrific comic actors, especially Willie “Too Big” Hall and the recently deceased Donald “Duck” Dunn. The band’s big performance at the Palace Hotel Ballroom is fun but the song selections just remind you how good the originals are. I mean, compared to Solomon Burke’s original or The Rolling Stones’ cover, Belushi’s version of “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” just ain’t cutting it. Belushi’s best vocal is on the movie’s opening song, “She Caught the Katy.” The song is used to score Jake’s release from jail and reunion with his brother. The opening guitar picking and blast of the horn section get the movie started on a high note, And Belushi’s phrasing is good because he doesn’t force it.
Unfortunately the promising opening song is followed by the movie’s worst musical number. The boys are sent to church to get some inspiration. James Brown plays Rev. Cleophus James, a showman who leads his congregation in a boisterous rendition of “The Old Landmark.” Designed as a tribute to black gospel music, the number borders on offensive as George Folsey’s frenetic editing makes the dancers into leaping bodies, killing any chance of the song’s building to a climax, and turning the spiritual into something comical. Besides, who wants to see The Godfather of Soul do a gospel song? Aretha Franklin does better with her rendition of “Think,” but Landis stages the dancing awkwardly. And when the band plays a rowdy country bar, the mere sight of Jake and Elwood in their costumes performing “Theme from Rawhide” simply doesn’t do enough to make the connection between country music and the blues.
Then, Ray Charles does a fantastic cover of “Shake a Tail Feather.” Charles proves to have perfect comic timing. (“It breaks my heart to see a boy that young go bad.”) And it’s also the best edited and choreographed of all the musical numbers. Even better is Cab Calloway donning his trademark white tux and performing “Minnie the Moocher.” He makes an effect Belushi and Aykroyd struggle to accomplish look effortless.
The Blues Brothers is best remembered for its extended climactic car chase, and it’s still a doozey. Cars fly, spin, flip, careen, and crash into one another like a pileup at a Hot Wheels factory. (“This is car 55. We’re in a truck!”) Landis sustains the comic momentum of the sequence in what amounts to the movie’s best musical number. The sheer audacity of the sequence at the time turned out to be prophetic, as it pretty much announced the 1980s as the decade of the bigger-and-louder-is-definitely-better school of filmmaking. The Blues Brothers put the existential dread and emphasis on the personal of ‘70s filmmaking in its rearview mirror. What it was speeding toward didn’t matter. The chase was all that mattered.
San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.