The Blues Brothers
There are some films that transcend even the exalted status of favorite or cult classic and become part of the very fabric of our culture. Films in this classification have entered into our collective consciousness, almost every phrase uttered part of our vocabulary. One such film came into the world in 1980 in the form of the Blues Brothers. Few movies can combine action, comedy, music and satire the way the Brothers did. The one thing the film doesn’t have is a substantial plot, but it more than makes up for it with sheer energy. As the flick starts Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd) is at the Illinois State Prison to pick up his brother 'Joliet' Jake Blues (John Belushi). After a brief union and introduction to the new ‘Blues-mobile’ the brothers head back to Chicago’s west side to visit with Sister Mary Stigmata (Kathleen Freeman), better known to the boys as The Penguin. The orphanage where the Blues Brothers grew up is about to be foreclosed for $5000 back taxes and the brothers must go ‘on a mission from God’ to reunite their band, make money and pay off the debt. Aside from run ins with the Illinois State Police, a red neck band and the dreaded Illinois Nazis, the film is basically one musical performance after another, and therein lies the fame of this movie. Back in the seventies while on Saturday Night Live Aykroyd and Belushi invented the Blues Brothers as a combination comedy and musical act. They actually succeeded to pull together some of the finest R&B musicians of all time including the likes of Matt 'Guitar' Murphy, 'Blue Lou' Marini, Tom 'Bones' Malone and Donald 'Duck' Dunn. Those out there with even a passing knowledge of Rhythm and Blues will immediately recognize these names and appreciate the collection of musical talent assembled here. As so many late night infomercials state: ‘Wait, there is more’. Added to the performances of the Blues Brothers band are some musical numbers by illuminated persons such as Ray Charles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and the great Cab Calloway. Each one is fit into the story line and manages to work in a number. Franklin plays the wife of Matt Murphy, co-owner of a little soul food restaurant when the boys blow in to take Matt away. Her rendition of ‘Think will blow you away. Then it’s on to a little musical instrument store owned by Ray Charles. His performance of ‘Shake a Tail Feather’ spills out into the street for a full on dance number. One of the best musical numbers is with James Brown, the hardest working man in show business, as a preacher who brings the church to their feet with ‘The Old Landmark’. Even the incidental music here is like a compellation album of greats including performances by Sam and Dave, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker and Fats Domino. The Brothers and their band also cover many classics like The Theme from Rawhide, Stand by Your Man and in the extended version presented here an energetic version of Jailhouse Rock. One of the highlights here is Cab Calloway in full white talls singing his classic Minnie the Moocher, even my 21 year old daughter was caught up in it.
The film is also legendary for its car chases, holding the world’s record for most stunt cars destroyed in the making of a film. In one scene the chase actually proceeds through a shopping mall. Broken pieces of cars liter the screen as the brothers avoid the growing groups of people after them. Just as memorable are the plethora of cameo appearances such as Frank Oz (Yoda) as the checkout clerk at the prison, Steven Spielberg as the county clerk, Twiggy as a gas station customer and Laugh-In great Henry Gibson as the head Nazi. Carrie Fisher shows up as a jilted ex girlfriend of Jake with murderous revenge on her mind. It is almost best to forget the plot and sit back for the time of your life. Surrender yourself to the action and most of all, the music. This film is like taking a roller coaster ride through the R&B hall of fame.
What holds this film together is the extreme talent in comedy and love for music held by the principles, Dan Aykroyd and the late John Belushi. Their love for this project translates to the audience as sheer entertainment. Aykroyd plays a variation of his laconic Joe Friday impersonation with his presentation of Elwood. Behind his ever present pair of dark shades he dispenses one liners like a boxer’s jabs. His dead pan delivery is nothing short of perfect. Add to this comic genius a really good job of playing the harmonica and you have something special. In contrast to this is the over the top performance of Belushi. Jake is the kind of guy we all know and secretly admire, he is bold, willing to take a chance and talented. His trademark bad boy look with the raised eyebrow is completely in character here. The two had perfect chemistry on this film and we benefit for it.
John Landis has a varied resume that includes such films as Animal House, An American Werewolf in London and the Michael Jackson video, Thriller. Here, he is more of a ringmaster in a circus than a director. He must have had a difficult time reigning in the exuberance held by the cast just to get this film made. The film is fast paced with the explosions and car crashes punctuated by the fantastic music. His brilliance here is realizing that this is not a deep story but rather an excuse for a roaring good time.
Its difficult for me to realize that this is the twenty-fifth anniversary of this flick. I remember seeing it in the theaters, owning it on VHS and loving every time I’ve watched over this past quarter of a century. Universal did right by this movie with the release of the special anniversary edition. For one thing both the theatrical and extended editions are present on a two sided DVD. The theatrical cut has only Dolby Surround audio in order to make room for the extras but the extended cut is presented in a rich, slamming Dolby 5.1. Several new numbers have been added to fill out the extended cut along with a few little expository scenes. Forget the scenes, it’s the music that makes this a must have. The video is anamorphic for both versions and is better than I ever remember seeing for this film, albeit, there was some graining in the darker scenes but nothing too major. The main extra is a 55 minute making of featurette that is extremely enjoyable. It goes into exactly what had to be done to bring this film to the screen. Several other little featurettes concerning the music are also included as well as a tribute to the late John Belushi. If you want to disconnect your brain for a little while and just be entertained that this the must have edition of a required movie.