The Blues Brothers
(SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House, knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even before the home video afterlife, though, The Blues Brothers was distinctive; it arrived as a ready-made cult movie. But then, John Landis’ oeuvre is cult movies.
That was part of the ramshackle charm of his pictures, albeit this eased rather, depending on the demands of stars (Coming to America is pretty slick) and quality (no one will find much to charm in Beverly Hills Cop III or Blues Brothers 2000). Despite the expense of The Blues Brothers, and the scale – Landis noted its out-of-control movie rep at the time, along with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Apocalypse Now, Heaven’s Gate, and 1941 – it has a certain homemade quality. That may in part be down to the largely unadorned industrial grime DP Stephen M Katz captures in the Chicago locations (Katz earlier worked with Landis on Kentucky Fried Movie, and would later recur on Dream On, but his CV is less than distinguished in terms of classy fare); you’ll look at the opening shot of the Chicago skyline and assume it’s a Blade Runner outtake. This lo-fi presentation of urban decay will recur in various forms during the ’80s, notably Alex Cox’s Repo Man.
It may also be part of Universal’s diktats, whereby Ned Wasserman decreed “… you’ve got to take half an hour out. So I did. I chopped it up”. As Landis saw it “The whole joke of The Blues Brothers is how immense it is. The original cut had real scale. By chopping it up, it lost that sense of size. There are still great moments, but it lost the scale. It was gigantic… The whole point is it’s silly”. What survives this pruning – even the restored version isn’t as restored as Landis’ favoured cut – is in common with the best parts of Landis’ early works, though: a sense of rollicking anarchy. Something that, by the time he was embedded with ex-SNL performers now comfortable with regular movie paycheque gigs, was largely lost, however sporadically inspired the proceedings may have been (Spies Like Us, Three Amigos!)
Time Out’s Ian Birch wasn’t so convinced, labelling The Blues Brothers “a dispiriting indulgence”, one illustrating the “well-meaning but directionless predicament of the Rolling Stone generation”. It was a “grandiose TV variety show stuffed to the gills with dislocated cameo appearances” rather than “an epic, surreal romp through the America of Howard Johnsons”. He also suggested the slew of African-American musicians “come close to being patronising” (which seems a little unfair). Kael was similarly less than convinced. Albeit, as Landis put it, she “wrote this insane piece on The Blues Brothers, mostly about how wonderful Aretha Franklin was, but also that only the Blues Brothers get a standing ovation in the movie. That’s not true”. It’s certainly true that almost half Kael’s review is devoted to Franklin and her performance of Think! (great fun, but let’s get real here).
Kael asserted that Franklin “smashes the movie to smithereens” and “transcends the film’s incompetence”. “When the Blues Brothers take Matt Murphy with them and leave Aretha behind, you know that the moviemakers don’t know what they’re doing”. She also opined how the leads’ SNL performances that “seemed so funky” were now “very drab” and “the fun has gone out of their hipster musicians act”. Kael did admit the movie is “good natured, in a sentimental, folk-bop way” and recognised Landis’ point (“its big joke is how overscaled everything is”). Landis “has a lot of comic invention and isn’t afraid of silliness, but in terms of slapstick craft he’s still an amateur”. Then there’s also “The movie is probably more fun for people who drive than people like me”. Okay…
Some of the criticisms are undoubtedly fair. The picture is, by its nature, hit and miss. As are the cameos (I’ll admit to wondering what Twiggy is doing there, as by this point she was hardly zeitgeisty). But many work and don’t feel intrusive, be it Frank Oz with a prophylactic, Spielberg as a nerdy (what other sort would he be?) clerk, Paul Reubens as a waiter, or John Candy as a cop (“Who wants an orange whip?”)
Carrie Fisher is particularly inspired casting as Jake’s vengeful ex (armed with a bazooka), eventually left in the mud. The likes of Henry Gibson (as the head of the Illinois Nazis – “Well what are you going to do about it, Whitey?”), Charles Napier (of The Good Ol’ Boys) and Stephen Williams (a cop, rather than X) can also be seen to amusing effect. As for the musician cameos, you can doubtless forward the patronising claim, but there’s far too much genuine affection here for that to be deserved, and some of the performances (Think! and especially Minnie the Moocher) outdo the main duo’s efforts. Of which, Rawhide is probably the best, just for context (I like the way “courtesy" bottles continue to be thrown even when the crowd is enjoying the act: Stand by Your Man).
Landis tells how the movie “was a kind of vanity deal. Universal was trying to keep John happy”. Development was suddenly accelerated after his The Incredible Shrinking Woman was cancelled (Tomlin had just been in a flop with Travolta), and the next morning a call for The Blues Brothers came through. Universal’s conviction that “No white kid will come and see this movie” turned out to be false, and Landis attests it was one of the first pictures to attain more success overseas than at home (which seems curious in itself, given how specific to Americana it is. Landis isn’t always wholly reliable, of course).
Birch was after the wrong thing if he expected an overt commentary from The Blues Brothers; it was always going to hew partly towards It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World scrappiness in its wilful and gleeful excess. What it has going for it that few SNL ensemble pictures do is a genuine sense of unruliness. Certainly, you won’t find it in Landis other movies with these guys (look how well-behaved Trading Places is). Possibly only Into the Night – shorn of such alumni – finds a genuine WTF-is-going-on-here quality. I suspect in The Blues Brothers, that’s a consequence of being greenlit at the tail end of the ’70s. Far more ’80s of SNL movies end up closer to the ordered mayhem of 1941, if that; you know, properly scripted. But with laughs. Even when it isn’t offering laughs, The Blues Brothers has an infectious brio going for it, and while it may seem unlikely that anyone was catching anything here on cursory inspection –slopping it out everywhere, more like – that kind of thing is lightning in a bottle.