The Blues Brothers (1980)
Dir. by John Landis
Starring John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Cab Calloway and Carrie Fisher
R&B singer and career criminal Jake Blues is released from prison after serving three years for armed robbery. Upon learning that the orphanage where he was raised will be foreclosed unless it can raise $5000, he and his brother Elwood decide to put their old band back together for a fundraiser concert. Along the way, they manage to attract the attentions of the police, Neo-Nazis, a vengeful country band and a mysterious woman with a vendetta against Jake.
As with many of these movies, I have no recollection of the exact time and place where I first watched Blues Brothers. We never had it on VHS until I was old enough to be able to buy VHS tapes myself, but it was one that I’d always scour the weekly TV listings in the Sunday paper for. If you’d asked me to list my favorite comedies or musicals at any point in high school, Blues Brothers almost certainly would have topped both lists.
This is the best car chase musical ever made. I’d say it was the only one ever made, but Baby Driver came out a couple years ago. It’s also arguably the greatest movie ever set in Chicago, with only the possible exception of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
According to my movie log, it’s been seven years since I’ve seen The Blues Brothers, and I’m glad to say that I still enjoyed it just as much this time around as I did back in high school. Both Belushi and Aykroyd were at the top of their games, and they are surrounded by possibly the best lineup of musical guest stars ever assembled for a movie: Cab Calloway, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and John Lee Hooker all have songs, and the Blues Brothers band itself is a who’s-who of classic soul and blues musicians.
While the soundtrack is absolutely tremendous, and would be reason enough to see the movie just on its own, Landis and Aykroyd double down by making the movie one of the most over-the-top chase movies of all time. The highlight is the twenty-minute, hundred-mile-long race from the concert venue in Wisconsin to downtown Chicago, with seemingly every single police officer in the state, as well as the National Guard and the Neo-Nazis, in hot pursuit. The chase is a paean to ridiculousness, with the Bluesmobile performing feats that no car would ever be able to accomplish – it helps to be on a “mission from God.” No wonder the car literally disintegrates once they reach their final destination.
However, for my money the most entertaining chase actually occurs over an hour earlier, when Elwood attempts to evade arrest at a traffic stop by driving through a busy indoor mall. It was filmed at an actual closed mall outside Chicago, and represents a level of gleeful property destruction that modern-day superhero films would envy.
There is one plot element that gives me slightly more pause than it did twenty years ago, however: the aforementioned Neo-Nazis. They are first introduced while marching after a successful court case, with a horde of counter-protestors screaming at them while being held back by the police. Into this arrive the Blues Brothers, who decide to cut through the traffic jam by ramming the Nazis with their car, forcing them to all jump off a bridge or get hit. This is all played for laughs, and while I can admire any movie that spends time kicking the ass of American white supremacists, in a post-Charlottesville world this particular scene is a little too real for comfort. Especially its use of attempted vehicular manslaughter for a cheap laugh.
Ultimately, the Nazis really serve no narrative purpose in the film. They’re just another faction out to get the Blues brothers, and could easily be excised from the movie without changing much at all. That makes me wonder why they were there in the first place. I know that the original version of the script was infamously bloated out of control. Dan Aykroyd had never written a screenplay before, and turned in a 300+ page behemoth that he jokingly wrapped in a phone book cover. Maybe they originally had more of a point, which never made it onto the screen.
I’m glad I finally got around to catching up with this one again, as it was just as good as I remember it being. I’m docking it just a little for the plot threads (i.e. Nazis) that don’t really go anywhere, but otherwise it’s a real winning movie, and one I need to see if I can pick up on Blu-Ray.
-This was the first movie to be based on an SNL sketch, and while there would be many more to come, only perhaps Wayne’s World would ever manage to equal this first one.
-In addition to all of the musical performances, this movie also has a whole lot of famous cameos that I gradually recognized over the years. Frank Oz is a prison clerk that gives Jake his clothes back, Stephen Spielberg plays the Cook County clerk at the end, Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman) is a maître d’, and the band’s booking agent is played by 50s pop vocalist Steve Lawrence in a non-singing role.