The Blues Brothers (1980) starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd
What’s it about?
Imprisoned blues musician Jake Blues (John Belushi) is released on parole for good behaviour to be picked up by his brother Elwood (Dan Aykroyd). They pay a visit to “The Penguin” (Kathleen Freeman), the Catholic Sister who runs the orphanage where they were raised. She tells them that she owes the taxman $5000 and that if she doesn’t pay the orphanage will be foreclosed. The duo offer to give her the money but she refuses to accept it since they gained it from their life of crime. Furiously expressing her disappointment at the path they have taken, she casts them out until they have proven that they have redeemed themselves.
Their friend Curtis (jazz singer Cab Calloway) consoles them and persuades them to seek solace in the preaching of a church run by Rev. Cleophus James (soul singer James Brown). After a rousing song, divine inspiration comes to Jake: The Band. So, the two brothers set out to reform their band and make enough money to save the orphanage. However, when they embark on their quest they soon find themselves hotly pursued by the cops plus a mysterious woman with a penchant for all kinds of dangerous weaponry (played by Carrie Fisher). They also manage to wind up a group of Nazi sympathisers called The American Socialist White People’s Party and a country and western band called The Good Ole Boys, and soon they, too, are on their tail.
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Why is it significant?
It was the much-anticipated follow-up to 1978’s hugely successful National Lampoon’s Animal House for director John Landis and comedian John Belushi.
What started out as a Saturday Night Live sketch involving Belushi and Dan Aykroyd then morphed into an ongoing blues band with various guest musicians and finally gained a kind of immortality with this movie tie-in. As with the later Ghostbusters (a film that Dan Aykroyd also co-wrote) it cannily feeds its own zeitgeist and iconography - as seen right from the start when Jake is released from prison, whereby on exiting he is handed back his distinguishing costume accessories from storage: a trilby hat and shades. When seen standing at the open gates waiting to be met by his brother, his outline is shrouded by the blazing sun in the background - a device that both neatly establishes him mythologically and anchors him on a spiritual quest. “We are on a mission from God” is their catchphrase.
The Blues Brothers is a cult film in the truest sense of the word. It’s a one-of-a-kind movie (a sort of epic mixture of comedy, musical, action and spiritual quest) which got mixed reviews on release but has gained appreciation over the years. While it was fairly successful at the box office (taking $115 million worldwide on a $30 million budget) some contemporary critics sniped at its bombastic excesses in the form of elaborate musical numbers and even more elaborate vehicle chases - i.e. the very same attributes that fans have subsequent revelled in over time.
It was followed by a belated sequel called Blue Brothers 2000 (1998). However, since John Belushi had sadly passed away after a drug overdose in 1982 (just 2 years after the original), he was replaced by John Goodman. In this instance, contemporary critics, cinema audiences and retrospective reviews have all been pretty much unanimous in proclaiming it to be an unworthy follow-up.
How does it hold up?
Its cult reputation is well-deserved because it does all of the disparate things it sets out to do really well: it’s very funny, the musical numbers are great, the action is spectacularly exciting and the spiritual aspects show that it can transcend mere entertainment without losing sight of being entertaining.
There is an undeniable thread of redemption running through The Blues Brothers. The divine is touched upon in the ongoing way in which sunlight is used (when Jake realises his mission, he is again shrouded by light, this time in the form of a blue shaft from a stained glass church window). However the core is that the two brothers have sank into shame by choosing crime over the music they are clearly passionate about. During the course of the film they don’t exactly put their life of crime behind them (the trail of destruction they leave is quite colossal) but they do find a form of redemption by putting the band back together and playing a successful reunion show to earn the proceeds to keep the orphanage open. While the plot is thin and cliched, the way in which this thread is handled keeps it engaging.
The entertainment comes from the incidentals
Of course, there are plenty of wonderful incidentals along the way that also keep the viewer glued to the screen. For one thing, there are the succession of jazz, soul and blues artists who pop up for the musical numbers: James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. All are on fine form. The city of Chicago is turned into something of a star in itself, with such iconic sites as The Loop being featured alongside stretches of urban decay and funky neighbourhoods giving it a soulful, noir-influenced character that’s as fascinatingly lived-in as the craggy face of an ageing musician in one of the aforementioned genres.
There are the memorable comedic moments such as a mystery woman (played by the sadly-departed Carrie Fisher) who utilises ever more extreme forms of weaponry in her attempts to take out the duo - yet leaves them both unscathed and utterly nonchalant to the destruction that’s just occurred around them each time. There is also a great scene where the band lands a gig in the most glaringly hick-orientated bar you can imagine:
Elwood: What kind of music do you usually have here?
Barmaid: Oh, we got both kinds. We got country *and* western.
Last but not least are the wildly destructive car chases. The mall chase and the final race to the tax office are regarded as two of the finest ever filmed. Fact: 103 cars were wrecked during filming, which was a world record at the time.
The film is just a whole lot of fun, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Runtime: 133 mins
Dir: John Landis
Script: Dan Aykroyd, John Landis
Starring: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Carrie Fisher, Henry Gibson, John Candy, Charles Napier, Twiggy, Kathleen Freeman