Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Blues Brothers

When I reviewed Jesus Christ Superstar a few weeks ago, I listed South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as my favorite musicals.  I apparently forgot about one of my all-time favorite films, The Blues Brothers.  I could try and defend my omission by classifying the film as an action movie (the car chases probably made Burt Reynolds jealous) or as a comedy, but I'll just 'fess up.  I forgot about it.  I'm dumb like that sometimes.

Without a doubt, the best movie idea to ever spring from Saturday Night Live, The Blues Brothers took the surprisingly successful (and shockingly legit) R&B/soul/blues band that got its start on SNL and gave them a story.  Sure, Their first album, Briefcase Full of Blues, had album liner notes detailing some of that backstory.  Sure, it certainly helped that the band hadn't become annoying by starring in some inevitably underwhelming SNL sketches --- these gags were fresh, even if the characters were recognizable.  But what helped the most was the combination of Dan Aykroyd and John Landis.  Landis showed a talent for filming action and music numbers that complemented his already established skill with directing comedies.  Add Landis' surprising skill set with a still-funny Dan Aykroyd (rarely seen after Nothing But Trouble), and you get an odd blend of clever comedy, stupid comedy, reckless destruction and truly awesome musical numbers.
If you don't love this scene, you have no soul (or R&B or blues)

When Joliet Jake Blues (John Belushi) --- with "JAKE" tattooed on his knuckles --- is released on parole, he is met by his brother, Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) --- with "ELWO" tattooed on the knuckles of one hand, and "OD" finishing off the name on his other fist --- and the two return to the orphanage where they grew up.  Times are tough for the orphanage, though, and five thousand dollars is needed to keep the place open or the only parents Jake and Elwood have ever known --- the abrasive Sister Mary "The Penguin" Stigmata (Kathleen Freeman) and the orphanage's janitor, Cal (Cab Calloway) --- will be living in a remote mission and the street, respectively.
What's one more scat-singer on the street to the Board of Education?
Jake and Elwood hastily agree to get the money in time for the approaching deadline, but The Penguin insists that they get the money honestly.  That poses more of a problem.  Cal recommends they attend a church where they hear a sermon from Reverend Cleophus (James Brown).  During the unexpectedly lively sermon, complete with dancers, people doing flips, back-up vocals from Chaka Khan, and shockingly poor enunciation, the boys receive a message.
"...ah herr a diss toob in sown!"
To save the orphanage, they must bring The Blues Brothers Band back together.  This isn't just their idea; this is what God wants them to do.  It's not going to be easy, though.  The band has split up, taking various joe jobs and moving on with their lives.  And if they get the band together, they still need to play an enormous show and it needs to be ridiculously successful.  And even if they are able to do that, there are a number of people out to get the Blues Brothers, simply for doing whatever it is they do.  But they won't fail.  They're on a mission from God, after all.

The acting in The Blues Brothers is pretty hit-and-miss.  John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd have wonderful chemistry and are thoroughly entertaining throughout, even when speaking one-word sentences.

The great thing about this movie is that the wonderful, random and physical comedy these two bring to the table is just icing on the cake.  Aside from small roles from John Candy (note: do not emulate his bar scene and order orange whips.  They are disgusting), Henry Gibson, Frank Oz, Charles Napier, and Carrie Fisher (all of whom were just lovely), the rest of the cast is filled with amateurs.  If you are looking to make a movie that featured great musicians acting, stick to Cab Calloway and Aretha Franklin.  The other musicians --- specifically Matt "Guitar" Murphy, Donald "Duck" Dunn and Steve "The Colonel" Cropper --- are about as wooden as you can get.
As her husband says, "They're all pretty bad."
Luckily, the bad acting from the non-professional cast feeds into the awkward timing and left-field jokes that Landis loves in his films.  In any other movie, I would point to the cameos of Paul Reubens, Steven Spielberg, and that guy who played the limo driver in Die Hard as high points in the casting, but I can honestly quote at least a dozen lines of dialogue from these musicians.  Their acting may not be great, but their delivery and Landis' editing makes them surprisingly memorable.
"I wrote Boom Boom"  "No you didn't!"

The real star of the film was the musical numbers, though.  Even at the height of the band's popularity (they did have a number one album), I doubt anyone would have expected legends like James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker and Cab Calloway to showing up and sing in this film.  And The Blues Brothers Band is shockingly good.  Filled with established sessions musicians as well as the guitarist and bassist from Booker T and the MGs --- who supplied some of the major musical themes for the film --- this was a musical machine.  Belushi and Aykroyd's vocals aren't bad, but they are enthusiastic, which makes all the difference.  When you mix that enthusiasm with the credentials of their band and the great guest performers, you get some truly memorable music scenes.

John Landis directed The Blues Brothers and co-wrote it with Aykroyd.  This isn't a script that could have been pulled off by just any actors --- there are too many weird gags and half-written jokes ("Got my Cheese Whiz?") that required these exact leads --- but the fact that Landis and Aykroyd were able to take advantage of their familiarity with each other (and Belushi, of course) to make so many of these jokes work is remarkable.  Also impressive is how Landis was able to take that SNL staple of humor (ridiculously over-doing something because "Get it?  This is sillier than real life!") and multiply it a thousandfold.  Sure, it's kind of funny that a lot of police would chase Jake and Elwood for, essentially, being awesome; Landis brings in SWAT, tanks, and the National Guard into the mix, turning a slightly silly idea into something ludicrously over-the-top.
John Landis is not a director known for his rapport with the actors in his films, and that is why he usually doesn't get surprising performances; the actors you expect to be funny are funny, and then there's everybody else.  But Landis edited this picture surprisingly well, too.  He mixes iconic shots of the Chicagoland area with iconic shots of the actors.
He sometimes ends scenes abruptly to punch up the humor in a parting line of dialogue.  His camera work is fairly commonplace for most of the film (aside from avoiding Jakes eyes in the opening credits), but he shows an eye for shots that look great.  He's never afraid to make a choice that is stupid or silly, either (the Nazi car chase, for example); it's almost as if his attitude while making this film was "why not?"  And it doesn't hurt that he decided to wreck a shocking amount of property while filming this movie.  After all, if the music and the jokes don't appeal to you, at least you can enjoy the destruction of a mall and some massive car pileups.
Behind the scenes secret: John Landis hates cars

The Blues Brothers shouldn't work as well as it does.  Hell, it shouldn't have been made like this.  No studio would give a Saturday Night Live idea, even one with proven commercial appeal, a budget this large.  Hell, MacGruber had one-third the budget of this film, and The Blues Brothers was made thirty years earlier!  Of course, MacGruber was obviously going to suck, but that's still an impressive budgetary difference.  So many of these scenes work because they are so big and over-the-top (Carrie Fisher's destruction, the car chases, the mall scene, and Maxwell Street musical numbers, etc.), and it is a miracle these filmmakers were allowed to dream this big.  While it would have certainly been different with a smaller budget, The Blues Brothers shows so much love for its music that the scale doesn't matter much.

I think I was born to love this movie.  The Chicago setting, music that fits the city (and you can still hear bums play on the streets), and comedy that toes the line between stupid and's just so good.  And I have always kind of liked the Wrigley Field bit, too.

For more on John Landis, check out some other opinions:

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  1. For whatever reason, this movie is like The Good, The Bad, The Ugly for me: Any time I question its greatness, I pop it in and it quickly reaffirms it.

    I completely agree that this movie should not work, but thank the good Lord it does!

  2. This movie had about a 1% shot of actually being good instead of just being crap surrounded by a few interesting moments. But a 1% chance was apparently all the chance it needed.