Classic Corner: The Blues Brothers

Little kids love The Blues Brothers. I understand, it’s an R-rated comedy whose runaway production became a towering symbol of Hollywood’s cocaine-fueled excesses of the late ‘70s and early 1980s. But when you’re eight years old, it also has everything you could possibly want from a movie: high speed chases, crazy car crashes, thrilling musical performances, saying swear words in front of nuns, even Princess Leia with a flamethrower. The Blues Brothers was an integral part of my childhood. It taught me about the foundations of American music, introducing this little boy to Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and James Brown at a time when you’d never hear them on the radio. It also taught me that cops, Nazis, and good old boys are to be mercilessly mocked and messed with. Especially when you’re on a mission from God.

The Blues Brothers is one of those movies I don’t remember seeing for the first time. When I was a kid, it was just always there. I feel like the ubiquity of The Blues Brothers in pop culture iconography tends to obscure what an incredibly strange film this is — a massively budgeted stunt spectacular mashed up with an old-fashioned “Let’s Put on a Show” musical featuring soul and R&B legends, fronted by a couple of guys in matching suits and hats who never take off their sunglasses. Saturday Night Live superstars Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi appeared on the program as mythical brothers Joliet Jake and Elwood Blues. Was this a sketch? Were they serious? The two were so committed to the bit it was impossible to tell. The Blues Brothers ended up opening for Steve Martin and eventually touring the country with a band that could, in their own words, “turn goat piss into gasoline.”  

The blockbuster success of National Lampoon’s Animal House had put Belushi on the cover of Newsweek, and the zeitgeist juggernaut that was SNL’s early seasons had studios clamoring for a movie from these guys. Any movie. Even this movie. Aykroyd had never written a screenplay before, so he drove around the Midwest in a decommissioned cop car, coming back with a 342-page opus – the usual guideline for Hollywood scripts is about a page per minute – copies of which he dropped on his collaborators’ doorsteps in the middle of the night disguised as phone books. It was up to Animal House director John Landis to figure out how to film it.

The Blues Brothers tells the story of two surly ex-cons from Chicago trying to save the orphanage where they were raised, getting their old band back together to perform a benefit concert despite being wanted fugitives on the run from angry rednecks, neo-Nazis, at least a thousand idiotic cops and one very angry ex-girlfriend. (She’s played by Carrie Fisher, Aykroyd’s then-girlfriend who spent so much time partying with Belushi that the two of them had to be physically propped up in certain scenes.) The plot is but a clothesline on which to hang the remarkable set-pieces, whether we’re talking joyful rhythm and blues performances – plus a gospel number and a couple of amusingly chosen country songs – or insane scenes of automotive chaos for which the filmmakers destroyed a shopping mall and dropped a Ford Pinto from a helicopter 1,200 feet in the air.

Savaged by critics – save for two Chicago boys named Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert – The Blues Brothers was one of those unlucky movies for which the press decides in advance to get very upset about the money being spent, as if entertainment journalists had some sort of financial stake in the picture. The then-astronomical $27.5 million budget was endlessly called irresponsible, when that very excess is the point of the picture. What makes The Blues Brothers so funny is the characters’ nonchalant reactions to the wanton destruction surrounding them. It’s the kind of picture in which Carrie Fisher can shoot at the leads with a rocket launcher and then after multiple explosions everybody gets back up and goes about their business without a word, an old wino still lounging on the steps undisturbed. Or think of Aykroyd careening the car through kiosks while offhandedly observing, “There’s lots of space in this mall.”

Unlike so many other comedy directors from that era, Landis had a genuine sense of scale. The trifecta of Animal House, The Blues Brothers and Trading Places are comedies that look like actual movies. With their fine location photography and Elmer Bernstein scores, there’s something stately about the presentation of those early Landis pictures that makes their anarchic energy feel even wilder. Cinematographer Stephen M. Katz shot The Blues Brothers with a wonderful, high-contrast grain and lenses that keep the entire frame in focus. He’s said he modeled the look of the film on old Dick Tracy comic books, and the matching suits with skinny ties and sunglasses make the characters look like black-and-white caricatures of themselves. It helps that Belushi is one of the most naturally expressive performers who ever lived. He could get away with wearing shades for two hours and 12 minutes because his physicality is such that there are shots in this movie during which I find myself laughing heartily at the back of his head.

The rap against The Blues Brothers I’ve been hearing my whole life is that it’s two mediocre white guys performing historically black music, and these days they call that “cultural appropriation.” I hate this because the entire history of music has always been artists appropriating each other’s sounds and innovations. Everyone has influences that they love and want to share, and that’s what keeps culture from becoming stagnant. Besides, The Blues Brothers is transparently designed as a love letter from Aykroyd and Belushi to the musicians they adore, with Jake and Elwood’s stiff dorkiness while dancing behind legends like Aretha part of the joke. (Or sometimes it’s just plain reverence, as when the movie stops dead in its tracks so we can watch John Lee Hooker perform at an outdoor street fair while an awestruck Aykroyd nods, saying, “Yep.”) The movie was designed to shine a light on artists who weren’t getting a lot of love at the moment. Meanwhile, Universal executives wanted to cut the Ray Charles song to make the movie shorter, calling him a has-been, and suggested replacing Aretha Franklin with “Car Wash” disco chanteuse Rose Royce.

But maybe what I love most about The Blues Brothers is how blessedly irresponsible it is, with a casual contempt for authority that’s especially refreshing in our obsequious modern age. Comedies in the post-Apatow era are mostly conformist fantasies about how great it is to grow up and become a suburban dad. This movie argues the opposite, saying you should quit your stuffy day job, ditch your old lady, and get back on the road with your degenerate friends. They’re getting the band back together. And when the opportunity arises to have a lesson learned, as when the full company sings “Jailhouse Rock” together in the film’s final scene, watch that crowd closely. They’re about to start a riot.

“The Blues Brothers” is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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