Quick question: how many musical comedies can you name? Probably a lot. Another question: How many R-rated musical comedies can you name? Probably not many. Last question: How many R-rated musical comedies that are also roaring car-chase pictures can you name? Probably just one: ‘The Blues Brothers.’ This film is nothing if not unique.
The Blues Brothers– a musical act consisting of Dan Aykroyd (‘Ghostbusters’) and the late John Belushi (‘Animal House’) along with an impressive backing band– had made repeated appearances on Saturday Night Live in the late seventies. Their popularity eventually earned them a movie adaptation in 1980, courtesy of Universal and director John Landis (‘Animal House,’ ‘An American Werewolf in London’).
Set in and around Chicago, ‘The Blues Brothers,’ tells the story of Jake and Elwood Blues, who learn that the orphanage where they grew up will close in a matter of days unless they can quickly and honestly raise the money necessary to pay its taxes. They set out to reunite their old Rhythm and Blues band, play some shows, make some dough, and save the day.
It’s a fairly silly premise: one that exists mostly as an excuse to give us a lot of musical numbers. But what music they give us. There are no less than 10 performances throughout the film (more if you count partial performances); and, not content to give us a single genre; the filmmakers instead provide us with a plethora of styles: classic R&B, gospel, soul, delta blues, old school rock and roll, jazz, and even some country. There is a surprising diversity on display here; and it really shows the uniqueness of all the genres that can loosely be classified under the Rhythm and Blues banner. What’s more is that a veritable “who’s who” of musicians provide guest appearances in the movie in order to sing some of these numbers. James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Cab Calloway, and John Lee Hooker–all giants in their line of work–show up to lend their talents at various times in the film. Apart from them all sounding incredible, the fact that most of them have passed away has given this movie a cool legacy as a musical time capsule.
Of course, the Blues Brothers and their backing band are no slouches either. Aykroyd and Belushi didn’t win any awards for their singing chops, but they have good timbre and great showmanship regardless. The backing band, whose members actually are the ones playing their instruments on screen, is also an incredibly talented group. There’s a scene in the film that displays the band members as so skilled that they can immediately pick up a song they’ve never played just by recalling how it goes– I imagine that’s (at least a little bit) exaggerated, but as a whole, they do display stunning musicianship and a great, cohesive sound; and they more than prove that they can stand toe to toe with the film’s star cameos; even if their acting is a wee bit wooden.
Clearly the music is the most important aspect about this movie, and it’s the main reason that it works. It has good tunes; it has a lot of tunes; and it has some genuine talent to see play those tunes. It’s one of those rare films where it’s worth it to own the soundtrack separately from the picture itself. If the movie was nothing but music, it would still be a classic; and still be worth repeated viewings.
Of course, the movie isn’t only music. No, in a stroke of genuine brilliance, the powers that be decreed that not only should the ‘Blues Brothers,’ be an excellent celebration of the R&B genre; it should also be one mother of an action picture too.
Throughout their crazy quest, the Blues Brothers run into some trouble with law enforcement*. Rather than willingly surrender to the police; the duo, who have acquired a Dodge Monaco police car on steroids, flee from them; and the result is some of the best vehicular action ever put to film. An opening scene showing the Monaco jumping a folding bridge is impressive enough; but the real fun starts when the Blues Brothers, on the run from the cops, drive into (yes, into) a mall and narrowly dodge pedestrians while crashing through every store in an attempt to escape from the police. This scene is just nuts and is a real treat in escapism.
As awesome as it is though, it turns out it was really just the appetizer for the main course: the finale of this film where the Blues Brothers drive through the streets of Chicago at full speed, while being pursued by hundreds of police officers. Coincidentally, this is the greatest non-Mad Max related vehicular stunt sequence ever scene on screen. Dozens of cars crash, vehicles leap impossible distances into the air, all manner of guns get fired, cars fall apart, cars fly sideways into trucks, one car gets dropped from a mile in the air…you get the idea. It’s zaniness, it’s hearth-pounding fun, it’s pure testosterone put to film, and it does nothing if not raise its entertainment value to 11/10 territory.
These two scenes alone easily make ‘The Blues Brothers,’ one of the best action pictures (comedic or otherwise) ever put to the film. The fact that the movie manages to fit in rocket launchers, flame throwers, and exploding gas stations in random other scenes throughout the movie only adds to the enjoyment and cements its standing in the action genre.
The last thing I want to point about this movie is the way it highlights the city of Chicago itself. You might think that this feature of the film would get lost in all of the action and sound, but director John Landis does a really good job of making it exist alongside those two things. Musical scenes often take part in specific areas of the city, and the same with the action. Not only are key locations of Chicago highlighted in these moments, but the cultural often is as well. The scene featuring John Lee Hooker’s performance of “Boom, Boom,” for example, has a lot of shots of the surrounding area–people grilling ethnic food, selling strange nic nacs, trading used music. It really does a lot to sell the authenticity of the area and highlight the cultural distinction of Chicago. And that final chase scene gives you quite a list of locations you can travel to in the city, just so you can say, “Hey I’m standing where the Blues Brothers flew by while evading the cops!” This film really makes the city an exciting place.
Even when there’s no action or music going on, Landis still shows off the city; even taking us into the parts we don’t always think about: behind allies, under trains, in the small suburbs and fields around the outskirts. He even throws Wrigley Field in there for fun. On top of the music and the action, ‘The Blues Brothers,’ works as a very thorough celebration of Chicago, and, I would argue, the Mid-West as a whole; and it is often credited with making Chicago a popular place for film shoots.
‘The Blues Brothers,’ is a film that works on three distinct levels: music, action, and celebration of a city. It’s amazing that any one of those levels works as well as it does, much less that they all do. Given what it’s juggling, it’s amazing that this picture didn’t fall flat on its face. I haven’t even really talked about the comedy in this movie, which is certainly alright, but it’s really those other things that makes the movie so classic.
The movie has a popular legacy: it has had a very successful run on television (my first introduction to it was in 2004 on AMC, where they must have shown it hundreds of times in a matter of months); it still gets occasional parodies and tributes on other shows; and it even got a sequel in 1998, though I recommend watching that one only for the music. Possibly the best part of its legacy though is that the film received a special edition, with new/extended scenes and lengthened music performances. It’s one of the few special editions that I really recommend over the theatrical cut– you not only get more music but the pacing is noticeably improved.
‘The Blues Brothers,’ really is a rare kind of film. Its style, mix of genres, sound, and atmosphere is something all its own, and I really do regard this movie as a classic in multiple categories. In the age of the Internet, it is only a few clicks away to check it out; and if you haven’t seen this one yet, I recommend doing so.
*The message of the movie, in terms of traffic conduct, is always stop at yellow lights.