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Should I Watch..? 'The Blues Brothers'

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online for over fifteen years.

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the big deal?

The Blues Brothers is a musical comedy movie released in 1980 and is based on characters created by the film's stars Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. Directed by John Landis, the film follows the blues-loving duo on a wild roadtrip to help save the Catholic orphanage they grew up in from closing down. Alongside Aykroyd and Belushi, the film's cast includes Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Carrie Fisher, Henry Gibson and Charles Napier. The film was Aykroyd's first attempt at writing a screenplay alongside Landis - due to the time spent on producing a script as well as Belushi's notorious partying lifestyle and a then-world record number of cars destroyed, the film's production costs spiralled out of control. However, the film was a hit with audiences with global takings in excess of $115 million and has since become a cult favourite. The film would be followed by a sequel in 1998, Blues Brothers 2000, which was both a critical and commercial flop.

Enjoyable

What's it about?

Blues vocalist Elwood Blues picks up his blood brother "Joliet" Jake Blues after he is released from prison on parole. Travelling in their unique Bluesmobile (a customised former police car), they visit their old Catholic orphanage which is run by the terrifying Sister Mary Stigmata, known as The Penguin. And she has bad news for the boys: the orphanage is facing foreclosure after being some $5000 short on their tax bill. At first, Jake offers to steal the money but after Sister Mary's violent reaction, he decides on a more moral approach - reunite their old blues band and hold a concert to raise the money.

But things have moved on while Jake was behind bars. With the members of the band having gone their separate ways, Jake and Elwood undertake an epic road trip in order to get them back together. But our heroes have an unusual knack of rubbing people up the wrong way and before long, they find themselves pursued by the police, an Illinois branch of neo-Nazis, a vengeful bunch of country-and-western musicians and a heavily armed mystery woman who will stop at nothing to kill the pair...

Trailer

Main Cast

ActorRole

John Belushi

Jake Blues

Dan Aykroyd

Elwood Blues

James Brown

Reverend Cleophus James

Cab Calloway

Curtis

Ray Charles

Ray

Aretha Franklin

Mrs Murphy

Carrie Fisher

Mystery Woman

Henry Gibson

Head Nazi

Kathleen Freeman

Sister Mary Stigmata

Charles Napier

Tucker McElroy

Technical Info

DirectorJohn Landis

Screenplay

Dan Aykroyd & John Landis

Running Time

133 minutes

Release Date (UK)

23rd October, 1980

Rating

15 (1989 re-rating)

Genre

Comedy, Crime, Musical

The film is clearly a labour of love for Aykroyd and Belushi, who give their performances everything and hit all the right notes.

The film is clearly a labour of love for Aykroyd and Belushi, who give their performances everything and hit all the right notes.

What's to like?

For what is essentially a side project running a comedy skit on a TV show, The Blues Brothers has a lot more going for it than you might imagine. Of course, the soundtrack is simply magnificent and one of the first soundtrack albums I acquired myself on CD. It's a fine collection of music from American history, a blend of blues, rock and roll and soul that is instantly recognisable and has transcended the film itself in the case of the film's standout performance of Everybody Needs Somebody To Love. Clearly, the band (Belushi, Aykroyd, Steve "The Colonel" Cropper, Donald "Duck" Dunn, Murphy Dunne, Willie "Too Big" Hall, Tom "Bones" Malone, "Blue Lou" Marini, Matt "Guitar" Murphy and Alan "Mr Fabulous" Rubin) are all having the time of their lives as each performance is full of talent and energy. If anything, it's easy to suspect Belushi and Aykroyd of faking their performance but you can feel their passion for the music and on stage, they are a captivating duo.

Away from the musical moments, the film is undeniably weaker but still has plenty to enjoy. It does have a prominent emphasis on vehicular action, to put it mildly - Smokey And The Bandit didn't have this many wrecked cars and wacky chases. The comedy comes mainly from the banter between Aykroyd and Belushi as the eponymous leads as well as the unlikely situations they find themselves in, such as the aggravation that arises after they drive through a crowd of neo Nazis and force them off a bridge. But really, the film is all about the tunes and that's the way it should be. If you consider the film to be a series of filmed performances by the band and the various other artists making an appearance, consider the bits in between to be childish fare for younger viewers to enjoy.

Fun Facts

  • The film set a then-world record of 103 cars that were completely destroyed during the shoot, another reason the film's budget got out of control. Blues Brothers 2000 would destroy one more car, almost symbolically, in 1998. The current record, at time of writing, is held by The Matrix Reloaded which destroyed more than 300 cars.
  • Belushi earned the nickname 'The Black Hole' on set as he was constantly losing his sunglasses after shooting a scene.
  • The Dixie Square Mall in Harvey, Illinois was rented by the producers to film some of the car chase scenes there. The mall itself had been closed for about a year while rumours began to circulate that it would be refurbished and reopened after filming was complete. However, this wasn't the case and it was eventually demolished in 2012.
  • According to Aykroyd himself, cocaine was provided as part of the film's budget to help cast and crew make it through gruelling night shoots. Aykroyd also claimed that Belushi felt the drug enhanced his performance and thus, enjoyed it the most.

What's not to like?

Unfortunately, however charming and enjoyable the musical sequences are, The Blues Brothers is found wanting when it isn't singing or dancing. Conceptually, the film is solid but the narrative is weak, meandering all over the place with the most threadbare of connections between performances. Thankfully, it is funny but I had many questions about the film when it ended. Why were Jake and Elwood immortal? Why was seemingly every law enforcement agency in north America trying to apprehend the boys? Why was John Lee Hooker allowed more time on screen? OK, that last one is because I'm a fan of his music but the movie itself is disjointed, feeling like a series of cracking musical performances linked by silly car chases for little discernible reason.

There's no denying that the film's excess of exuberance will put some people off - it's essentially one long in-joke, providing Belushi and Aykroyd a stage to engage in their own private party for the benefit of their audience. It's enormously self-indulgent in the way that the overblown Ocean's Twelve was basically an excuse for its star-studded cast to have a holiday in sunny Europe without actually providing much in the way of entertainment. Without the film's charm and blistering soundtrack, it would undoubtedly be a failure. Landis just about manages to keep a lid on the madness, which makes the film work in spite of the chaos.

The film is packed with star-studded cameos from the likes of James Brown, John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles (centre), among others.

The film is packed with star-studded cameos from the likes of James Brown, John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles (centre), among others.

Should I watch it?

It's possibly the antithesis of traditional Hollywood musicals but for this viewer, that isn't a bad thing. The Blues Brothers is a loud, brash and deliberately dumb film that delivers buckets of personality, tonnes of vehicular mayhem and enough tunes to keep you singing or toe-tapping for hours. But crucially, it presents a vision fuelled by creativity and energy (and yes, drugs) that makes the film stand out from almost any other musical you can think of.

Great For: younger viewers, fans of rhythm and blues music, fancy dress parties, cocaine users

Not So Great For: fans of more typical film musicals, mature audiences, stuffy critics

What else should I watch?

The Blues Brothers wasn't the first jukebox musical Hollywood had produced - in fact, they had been produced on-and-off since 1942's Yankee Doodle Dandy. But the film was part of a revival of the genre in the early Eighties alongside films like the Fosse-biopic All That Jazz and notorious disco flop Can't Stop The Music which was so bad that it partly inspired John J.B. Wilson to found the Razzies, awarding the worst films in cinema. Thankfully, things have improved somewhat in the years since - Moulin Rouge! is a wonderfully over-the-top and stylish film that earned a staggering eight Oscar nominations that remains popular today, as is the ABBA-inspired Mamma Mia! which was enjoyable but sadly crippled by Pierce Brosnan's awful warbling. Words cannot do justice to just how dreadful his singing is, trust me.

In fact, Mamma Mia! was so successful that other stage musicals soon saw adaptations on the big screen - albeit with mixed results. From the 80's hairspray rock of Rock Of Ages to the classier output of The Four Seasons in the film version of Jersey Boys to the more niche Sunshine On Leith which is based on the music of Scottish folk-rock duo The Proclaimers, jukebox musicals are suddenly in vogue. If you're not too keen on such fluff then there are plenty of classic movies out there to keep viewers entertained - The Sound Of Music, West Side Story, the wonderful Mary Poppins if you want something to amaze the whole family with or even the most recent version of A Star Is Born. My personal favourite, though, has to be Singin' In The Rain which not only has some of the greatest and most recognisable sequences in film history but also stunning choreography and colours that shine through the screen.

© 2020 Benjamin Cox

Soap Box

Pat Mills from East Chicago, Indiana on November 10, 2020:

I first saw this film on its opening night in the city where the fictional Blues brothers were raised. The film was a sellout, and the theater owners even gave patrons a chance to take a sledgehammer to a junk car. The theater, much like the Dixie Square Mall, is no longer in business.

I hope you might get the chance to see a couple of Allan Arkush rock musicals that came out around this time. In 1979, he made Rock 'N Roll High School, about an avid Ramones fan and her struggle to get to see her favorite band when they announce a concert in her town. Four years later, he made Get Crazy, about a theater owner trying to save his theater. The key rockers who appear in this one are Lou Reed and Turtles front men Mark Volman and Howard Kaylen. Both are a whole lot of fun. I'd also recommend the 1978 rock musical The Last Waltz, as Martin Scorsese shows a memorable final night of music for the Fillmore West, featuring The Band and many of their musical friends. It's one of many examples where Scorsese showcases the music of his contemporaries that he loves.