Registering the Registry 2020: The Blues Brothers (1980)
Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! This week, we’ve a rare breed of film: the Saturday Night Live sketch adaptation that doesn’t suck! Course, it has some of the biggest talents to emerge from the initial Not Ready For Prime Time Players, directed by the incoming decade’s best action-comedy man in the days before he committed manslaughter. From John Landis in 1980, starring Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, and a murderer’s row of talent, it’s The Blues Brothers! Let’s catch the Katy and see how it holds up!
As with Sleeping Beauty, we must once again begin with fair warning: The Blues Brothers is one of my all-time favorite films, a first-time watch as an adult decades after release that instantly minted a new true blue believer. To exemplify: I am generally disinclined to look for fault in its creation, I will proselytize to friends unfamiliar with the film about its endless glories, and I keep pretty much every song from the soundtrack in regular rotation on Spotify — or would, if they could make up their minds over whether or not the guest performers’ songs remain licensed on the platform. You’ll likely find bigger fans who can rattle off every musician to ever play with the band, their musical histories, each song the group’s played live, the precise details behind John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd’s conception and development of the idea, so on and so forth. You’ll not, however, find someone half so enthusiastic about The Blues Brothers as the pinnacle of John Landis’ directorial career and one of the rare American greats, a film about music as a conduit to magic so powerful it holds a load-bearing cornerstone position in my thinking on the necessity of agnostic faith towards a happy life. In short, I’m A Fan, and this will effect the tone in this piece going forward.
So, as inoculation, let’s start with elaboration on a point I made in an old review of the film: this really should not work, yeah? Consider the ways. We’ve a schlubby Canadian-American from Ontario and a schlubbier Chicago native in Aykroyd and Belushi, who developed the Blues Brothers act from composite pieces of sketches during their time on Saturday Night Live and an earnest passion for the blues, a genre they often admitted was not much in vogue with middle America at the time. Their backing band, though composed of 60s and 70s studio session greats like Steve “The Colonel” Cropper, Donald “Duck” Dunn (both of Booker T and the MG’s), Matt “Guitar” Murphy (associate to Howlin’ Wolf), and Willie “Too Big” Hall (the Bar-Kays), were not a one professional actors themselves, and yet they are tasked to appear in significant supporting roles throughout the film. When Aykroyd hands Landis a screenplay “draft,” it is a 300+ page monster written in free verse and bound in a Yellow Pages jacket, with just two weeks to wrangle it all into a workable script. Both stars, big on SNL yet long departed by the time of the film’s release, were fresh off the critically-drubbed and audience-nonstarter 1941 under Steven Spielberg, and Landis, while plenty popular and in-demand thanks to Animal House, had made his name on irreverence and controlled chaos within the constraints of mean budgets. This does not exactly speak well to a film whose initial $20 million price tag was blown past during preproduction (ending at roughly $30 million), and which was to feature a sprawling narrative about two blues musicians travelling the breadth of Cook County as they encounter numerous high-speed, high-impact action sequences, a good dozen or so massive musical numbers, countless big-name celebrity cameos and bit players, all of it driven by a story grounded in the earnest belief those on a mission from Gahd will see it through to the bitter end no matter the obstacles in their way… oh, and it’s ALSO got Landis’ classic irreverence for good measure.
Something should tip here. Something should not work. It’s got too much going on for even a two-hour-plus movie, too many stops along the way with too strong a desire to slow into cruise speed and mingle for a while without risking overcrowding. The cast and crew, though obviously talented, are too unproven for this trick to reasonably work; Belushi and Aykroyd lean so hard into disguising their characters’ personalities behind humorous flat affects, you’d never expect any charm to break through, and Landis just does not seem the type to transform Chicago’s streets into dance numbers involving hundreds of extras and breakneck chases with police cars flying like a kid smashing every toy in the toy store, not at this time. If we go by the restored director’s cut released in 1998, something DID break prior to studio intervention, for the restored scenes are an uneven mix of amplifying the musical numbers by letting them run even longer and hurting the overall picture by diluting its focus, janking the pace with unnecessary scene additions and explanations. We look on The Blues Brothers and see an overpacked feature from shaggy talent, with every idea under the sun oozing out its pores as the core creative team scramble about the edges trying to cram just a little more in. And for all this, against every odd, The Blues Brothers fucking rocks! How?!?
Zero in on the obvious: Aykroyd and Belushi are fantastic as the characters. If the flattened affects disguise the true persons of Elwood and “Joliet” Jake Blues at first blush, they also make it all the more delightful when you cotton on to the exact differences between the brothers. Elwood’s got the leveler head on his shoulders and has an easier time navigating tight situations without resorting to bullshit, but he’s also a little guileless and a bit too kind where it’s not warranted for his own good. By contrast, Jake’s all ABOUT spinning bullshit and being brash to get his way, which gets results about as often as it digs the pair into deeper trouble, thereby giving rise to their core dynamic. Though each shares a bit of the other’s traits to enhance the sense of family connection between the two (Elwood can do stupid impulsive things and Jake has the capacity to smoothly act his way out of a corner), many of the film’s best moments are driven by the two Blues’ switching command of the scene to gain a little better ground. Elwood takes them to James Brown’s church, Jake has a shaking, screaming, cart-wheeling revelation, Elwood catches on in his more refined way and serves as the grounded element who has to figure just HOW they’ll put the band back together. Jake gets them into a potential heap of trouble by lying their way into a gig at Bob’s Country Bunker, Elwood guides the band towards a solution with “Rawhide,” Jake enhances and ultimately provides the cover long enough for everyone to get away. Disrupting the fancy dining atmosphere at Chez Paul, dodging the police beneath the El, surviving gas shortages and murderous exes and negotiating risky slim deals, it’s all made as interesting and funny as it is by Aykroyd and Belushi trading off one another’s skills to keep the film on a fine balancing act between walking the straight and narrow and making up something underhanded as they go along. It’s fitting for a film about a criminal duo trying to do right by their nun’s orphanage under a tight time limit, and on its own the double act goes a long way towards keeping the film lively by hopping betwixt two interlinked sensibilities.
Expand out further, keep our feet in the performative elements while exploring said liveliness further: the music is absolutely phenomenal from start to finish. Who cares if Landis tends to linger on the musical numbers longer than one would expect even for a conventional Hollywood musical? He and his at Universal swung many of the musical greats from the 20th century, many on the cheap owing to their lacking popularity at the time, and gave them a late in life chance to strut their stuff on the biggest stage possible. James Brown transforming a church into the highest-flying celebration of faith in God imaginable through “The Old Landmark”, the stand-up-and-shout-it approach to preaching made larger than like by Mr. Please Please Me himself. Aretha Franklin working through difficulties with lip-syncing to fill her character’s diner with the loudest, proudest rendition on “Think” of her storied career, complete with Elwood and Jake joining in the chorus line just because it looks like the thing to do. Ray Charles’ cover on ‘Shake a Tail Feather” moving an entire city block to dance the mid-century standards as he bobs with piano keys reflected in his sunglasses. Goddamned Cab Calloway proving music is literally magic by transmuting the backing group into a white-suited big band of the 1940s with “Minnie the Moocher” as he shows he’s still got the moves AND command of call-and-response scatting with the audience well into his seventies, in a sequence I’ll defend as the only pace-jamming point in the director’s cut made more than worth it by getting to see the Hi-De-Ho Man perform a little while longer. John Lee Hooker casually in the midst of all this, running a street performance of “Boom Boom” as the Blues Brothers cruise on past. And those are just the on-screen performances in the picture! We can’t neglect the use of the Peter Gunn theme, “Hold On! I’m Comin’!” from Sam and Dave, or “I’m Walkin’” to score several driving scenes, can we?
Can’t neglect the material Aykroyd and Belushi actually perform with the band, neither. Give Briefcase Full of Blues a listen sometime, these guys didn’t assemble a backing band of this pedigree for nothing, and the two were pretty damned good on the vocals themselves, a quality which shines through into the movie. “She Caught the Katy” as the ideally cut backing music to the opening sequence, “Rawhide” to rile up an aggressive bar of country fans, a hilariously off-key rendition of “Stand By Your Man” that gains a great deal of tenderness through its combination with visuals of genuinely affected couples, the paired performance at the Palace Hotel Ballroom between “Everybody Needs Somebody” and “Sweet Home Chicago” with a jaunty demonstration of their dancing skills… oh, and “Jailhouse Rock” when their number finally comes up at the end. I have to note here, The Blues Brothers’ musical numbers may not boast brilliant cinematography, but they somehow contain no less than THREE of what I would call some of the most perfect cuts of at least the 1980s, if not the whole of the American cinematic canon. The star name- and title-introducing credits after Jake gets out of prison and the pair lean into a hug, the jump from Jeff Morris angrily pointing in time with one of Jake’s “You”s during the big act three performance to the Blues Brothers dancing in perfect sync without a care in the world, and the cut to black and full credits after a shot on the crew singing the final line of, “Jailhouse Rock” as their own highlight amidst the celebrity cameos. Those three bits rile and move me like almost no other contrasting moving images I can conjure off the top of my head, and I’d be surprised to meet someone who doesn’t feel at least a little tingle from the impact on their impeccable timing and content. Keep in mind, though, while these are the peaks, they are stratospheric moments amidst mountainous foot-stompers, crooner, hall-fillers, the works of big band play it LOUD sound, all of which keeps a body in ecstatic motion start to finish.
Now, listen, I’m aware we just broke with proper analytic form to unapologetically gush about how much I like all the songs in The Blues Brothers, how I think they’re all just so, SO good. My bad, I edged into John Landis-level indulgence, so accord me a chance to right things by noting it is important to catalogue and praise the musical sequences so highly because their enormity and quality is directly entangled with the film’s primary themes. ’Twas Jeff Mangum who sang, “Soft silly music is meaningful, magical,” and there’s nothing soft or silly about the music in this movie. It is, to the last, booming, room-filling, pulse-pounding, the heartaches and triumphs of rhythm and blues and its attendant sister genres amplified and magnified and projected across the whole state of Illinois as a spell capable of moving mountains. The utterly impossible is put within reach by the feelings music inspires, from taming a rowdy crowd to conjuring a packed house with one day’s advertising to the hand of Gahd parting the clouds to impart revelation in an unbelieving sinner’s head. Elwood and Jake are made near unrecognizable for just what the blare of horns and twang of guitar and plink of keys with a strong voice up front does to them as they dance and work towards their goals with a liveliness unhinted in their usual personas. The sentiment of music as magic is treated with a reverence and literalness you rarely see in even the great musicals of the past with their layers of affectation and artificiality. Landis and company MEAN it when they show this music as having the power to change the world inside a measure, much less a whole performance by the great acts and men driven to inspiration at the sight and sound. It seems nothing can stop men on a mission from Gahd, and indeed nobody CAN so long as they’ve a song in their hearts and sunglasses at night.
Believe you me, the universe does everything in its power to ensure Elwood and Jake never collect those $5000 and get ’em to the clerk of the Cook County Assessor’s Office in time. Carrie Fisher armed with machine guns and flame throwers and RPGs. A swarm of Illinois Nazis led by Henry Gibson. John Candy as an intrepid parole officer. More cops than you can shake a stick at driving the wildest swarm of recklessly wrecked police cruisers you ever done seen. All rendered completely, totally, and utterly impotent by the brothers’ cloak of divine protection — Carrie’s explosives leave them just as unharmed as her close-range bullets before Belushi disarms her with a look and a kiss, Gibson and his cronies get japed by a backflipping Bluesmobile before plummeting from thousands of feet higher than they initially started to their deaths, Candy winds up in a truck, and those police cruisers… hoo boy, the fucking hilarious sight of cop cars smashing through a mall, piling up along the grassy slopes of a freeway, congesting the streets below the L with their smashed bodies. One almost wants to think it should get boring after a while, knowing the Blues Brothers are completely immune to all harm until the second they get their receipt, but honestly it becomes an endlessly amusing game of watching just how high the stakes will mount before everything’s allowed to come crashing down upon their heads. With an answer involving what seems like thousands of policemen, National Guardsmen, mounted rangers, helicopters, and goddamned Shermans rolling through inner Chicago, it proves without a doubt Landis wasn’t any slouch for action, as if the early mall chase and numerous shots in the arm between there and here didn’t do so already.
There’s so much. I just have to reiterate, there’s so, so, SO much. I’ve been shamelessly gushing this entire time, trying to fit in mention of everything worth discussion for even the briefest sentence, and still I worry I’ve missed something. Hell, I’ve scarcely touched on how hilarious the whole thing is! Yet after three whole watches and active engagement uncommon to many films I watch every time, I’m never left exhausted by The Blues Brothers, which cycles us back to what I will always consider its most impressive achievement. It does not, and I believe never will, feel like a film with as much effort behind it as required. Trust me, I’ve read the behind-the-scenes stuff. I know the headaches with the permitting to shoot all this stuff in Chicago, the arguments with the singers over how they should perform, the difficulties procuring materials and extras for the wildest scenes, the remounting entire chase sequences with new extras because test audiences didn’t think the cars could be going THAT fast, Belushi’s unreliability on-set as his cocaine habit worsened the entire time to the point of necessitating an entire segment of the budget be set aside for the white stuff. This here’s a movie with as many production woes and blood and sweat and tears poured into its production as any other, and it is somehow lightfooted. It takes its time to enjoy every bombastic, showstopping element assembled before the camera, and still it flies right by. It’s enormous, overloaded, indulgent, arguing a point about the fundamental nature of a medium and its relation to Gahd at the top of its lungs from the bottom of its heart, trying to have more fun than you can possibly stomach at every last turn, and for all this I am pleasantly surprised to find another forty minutes vanished like *that* with every act. Maybe it’s the actors, or the music, or the story, or the action, or the comedy, or the freewheeling sense of a behemoth moving like a bumblebee. Whatever it is, the alchemical mixture in celluloid and sound and light is perfectly formulated to make something that should, by all appearances, be bloated and plodding into a lean, mean flying machine, tearing across the screen as easily as the Bluesmobile backflips over a shithead Nazi’s car as it plunges towards over-the-top doom.
One can find reason to go melancholic in contemplating The Blues Brothers. John Belushi died of a speedball overdose at just 33, John Landis is now and forever guilty in causing the deaths of Vic Morrow, Myca Dinh Le, and Renee Shin-Yi Chen while shooting The Twilight Zone Movie under flagrantly illegal standards, and Dan Aykroyd has been reduced to a conspiratorial crackpot. All the featured musical acts are long dead, as are several members of the backing band (Donald Dunn, Matt Murphy, Alan Rubin), without mentioning the early passings of Fisher and Candy. One looks on a land in which the greats are either dead or diminished and feels the compulsion to ask, just where did the world go? Or at least, I did whilst struggling to find a tone for this piece appropriately matched to the film’s own. Such despairing temptation does not match to what we see, though, and should not be indulged. Many beloved persons are gone, yes, but the very film they made about music and its power to move mountains has granted them the ever-coveted celluloid immortality. Within this picture, we find all lively and well, making the biggest, funniest, most celebratory movie they can manage, and pulling it off with flying colors. Watch The Blues Brothers to laugh and thrill and dance and believe as only the antics of two bluesmen in a decomissioned police car can do. Hit it.
As always, my approach is merely one of many, many ways one can disassemble and analyze the component parts of the film to understand what makes it tick. What about you at the keyboard? Any thoughts of your own on why the movie works so terribly well? Leave thoughts below, and keep your eyes out for next week’s picture. Out of the UCLA Film School’s graduate program, Julie Dash brings us a short about a black woman passing for white in 1940s Hollywood studio, to dissect how the American film industry often sells impressions and repackaged prejudices rather than reality in 1982’s Illusions. Criterion had it for a while before removal in May, though a selection of Dash’s other short and feature works remain for the time being. You can presently find it on Kanopy if your library’s linked to the service. If not, put in a request, and I’ll see you next time!