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Non-Review Review: The Blues Brothers

I had the pleasure of catching a Jameson Cult Film Club screening of The Blues Brothers earlier this evening. And it was awesome. Really, really great night. Might have been the best yet. I’ll have more details on it later in the week, but now seems like a good time to revisit the classic.

It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark… and we’re wearing sunglasses.

Hit it.

– Elwood and Jake

It might seem a bit redundant to say it, but The Blues Brothers has soul. Not just the funky music, though it has plenty of that. Nor an evangelical message, although the two brothers are, as they claim, “on a mission from God.” No, The Blues Brothers has a core of pure exuberance, a sense of joy that is all too rare – it doesn’t seem like writers Dan Ackroyd and John Landis threw ideas at the wall to see what stuck, so much as they demolished the wall and threw it at another wall. The Blues Brothers is, by turns, absurd, wry, grounded, sarcastic, charming, heartwarming and sardonic, with those elements frequently overlapping to an almost insane degree. In many ways, like John Belushi’s scheming, manipulative and aggressive Jake Elwood, it’s far more charming than it really should be. But we love it for it.

It’s a dirty business…

The music is amazing. I think you can tell a lot about the film from the fact that the musical credits are the first to appear – even before the two actors headlining the project, the director or even the name of the film. The Blues Brothers has one of the best soundtracks ever assembled. As a child, I honestly believed that many of the versions of classic songs on this album’s soundtrack were the originals. I believed that Everybody Needs Somebody actually opened with a sincere dedication to “the representatives of Illinois’s law enforcement community.” Of course, I am older and wiser now, but I sincerely credit the film with a large degree of my musical education.

More than that, though, the film feels like an ode to the power of music, without ever getting preachy about it, or dwelling on it. Jake and Elwood Blues are dodgy characters. We’re told that Jake was arrested for holding up a store in order to pay the band’s room service bill. Elwood, underneath his quiet demeanour, has built up a wealth of traffic offenses that he’s never done anything about, while eager to pull a short con on an out-of-towner (“that’ll be ninety-four dollars”). However, the pair are somehow redeemed through music. When they are up on stage performing, all their problems disappear – it doesn’t matter if it’s The Theme from Rawhideor an old jazz and blues staple, the pair seem to function better when music is a part of their lives.

There’ll be dancing…

In a rare moment of tender honesty between the pair, Jake suggests that thoughts of the band got him through his time in prison. “You were outside, I was inside,” he tells Elwood. “You were supposed to keep in touch with the band. I kept asking you if we were gonna play again.” Elwood seems to realise how much the band means to his brother, and that’s precisely why he kept its disintegration a secret. “What was I gonna do?” he asks his brother. “Take away your only hope? Take away the very thing that kept you going in there? I took the liberty of bullsh!tting you.”

Although both Ackroyd and Belushi do an exceptional job bringing the pair to life, I think the comedy works because the pair are little more than archetypes once you get past the importance of music in their lives. The entire movie is almost a selection of comedy sketches tied together by the attempt to save the local orphanage, and I think that Elwood and Jake work so well because they don’t overwhelm the film around them. It’s fun to watch Elwood’s weird obsession with bread, and to see Jake lie and cheat his way out of various awkward situations, but the pair work so very well because they don’t hem the movie in – they can do whatever needs doing in a particular scene.

Ray of hope…

To an extent, in their black sunglasses and increasingly dirty suits, the pair ground the movie that gleefully swings for the fences. Some of my favourite visual gags are little more than cartoons brought to life, with Elwood playing adastardly trick on the Good Ole Boys using glue, or a bunch of Nazis falling from an improbable height in a family station wagon, or even the Blues Brothers surviving an assassination attempt in a phone booth. All these are wonderfully and completely ridiculous, but Jake and Elwood are such wonderfully deadpan leads that it, to be quite honest, simply works.

John Landis does a wonderful job as director. Even ignoring the wonderful music numbers or the physical comedy, the movie features two show-stopping car chases. They might be among the very best car chases ever filmed, and they’re certainly among the most iconic. Even those who have never actually sat through the film will be familiar with the trip through the shopping mall, or the wonderfully epic final sequence through the heart of Chicago itself as the Blues Brothers race to get to the tax office on time.

Just stepped out for a Spiel…

And then there’s the cast. The two leads are superb, but everyone else is also awesome. It’s great that they managed to get some real soul legends on board, as I think it’s a very respectful way of acknowledging the importance of that music. There is, after all, a legitimate argument to be made that jazz was one of the first truly American artforms. James Brown, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin all provide truly awesome moments. The rest of the cast isn’t exactly too shabby either, including John Candy, Carrie Fisher, Charles Napier and Steven Williams among others. And each brings something fun to the table.

The Blues Brothers really set the standard for Saturday Night Live spin-offs. Only Wayne’s World could be argued to approach the film’s influence or success, and even that is highly contestable. It’s a genuine classic, and a movie that is as much fun today as it was thirty-odd years ago.

4 Responses

  1. I always had mixed feelings about “The Blues Brothers,” but after watching the making-of documentaries, I found new respect for what it took to produce this film and enjoyed it much more because of it.

  2. Haven’t seen this from start to finish since i was a teen. Loved it then and this review has me want to hit Amazon up and get it, great review

  3. I loved it too!

  4. If you want to see a live Blues Brothers tribute band in action, come along to the Little Venice Cavalcade 2015 in London on 3rd May @8pm to see The Rhythm and Blues Brothers headline the weekend http://www.therhythmandbluesbrothers.co.uk or come along and support The National Brain Appeal on 28th May at the UCL charity night where the band will be the headline act…

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