The Blues Brothers (1980)
Saturday, May 7, 2016 at 09:02PM
Ian Simmons in Blues Brothers/The [1980]

Out of The Blues

Forgive me, brothers and sisters, for I have sinned. Until very recently, I'd only seen The Blues Brothers once, years ago, and I couldn't stand it. No surprise there. An innate inability to appreciate the classics on first viewing hangs like a double-knotted albatross around my neck (count The Big Lebowski and Easy Rider among other colossal claims to shame). Sometimes I come around, though, like last weekend, when I took a fresh look at John Landis's epic musical comedy.

It was rough going at first. Twenty minutes into the film, and I'd barely cracked a smile. In Landis and co-writer/star Dan Aykroyd's meandering absurdism, I recognized a lot of what annoys me about so much modern comedy: the humor felt referential instead of intentional, as if the novelty of adapting a Saturday Night Live skit to feature length was supposed to be inherently hilarious. The nun jokes and the used condom joke and the over-the-top black church service where James Brown helps Jake Blues (John Belushi) bask in the cyan light of Jesus felt at once corny and dry--desperate, even.

There's a paradox here, somewhere, since The Blues Brothers came out in 1980, decades before non-sequitor throwback narratives became fashionable and every property with even an ounce of name recognition got the big-screen treatment. I was reminded of George Carlin's take on The House of Blues:

You ever see these guys? Don'tcha just wanna puke in your soup when one of these fat, balding, overweight, over-age, outta-shape, middle-aged male movie stars in sunglasses jumps on-stage and starts blowing into a harmonica? It's a fuckin' sacrilege...It's not enough to know which notes to play, you gotta know why they need to be played.

Indeed, the film reeked of vague parody, of a kind of Hollywood snobbery disguised as a blue-collar comedy wrapped in cartoonishly affected "Chick-yeah-goo" accents (the same kind SNL would make famous again in the mid-80s with their "Super Fans" sketches). As Jake and his brother, Elwood (Aykroyd), made their way from Joliet prison to the Chicago orphanage and points beyond, I wondered if The Blues Brothers would amount to anything more than a road comedy with some musical-number pit stops and a tired, save-the-orphanage destination.

Then came the car chase. Sorry, the first big car chase, the one in which our outlaw heroes lead several cop cars through the Dixie Square mall. My modern eyes had seen the closed-quarter outrageousness of exploding windows and bodies leaping out of the frame before, but two things stood out in the middle of this scene:

1. Hardly anyone got hurt. I'm sure the shopper characters were terrified, but the damage was limited to gaudy bargain barns and vehicles driven by those authoritarian squares known as the police.* Compare this scene to any of today's big-budget blockbusters,** and it's like watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon versus a 9/11 YouTube compilation. With the exception of one building collapse, whose wreckage is clearly comprised of Styrofoam "bricks", all the carnage in The Blues Brothers takes place on quiet streets, open roads, or in plazas where there's enough room to get out of the way. Revisiting the "awesome" Nick Fury takedown in Captain America: The Winter Soldier a couple days later, I couldn't help but wonder how many people were killed or severely injured in the Heat-inspired heavy-arms-in-mid-day-traffic set piece.

2. It was real. Today, even when a filmmaker goes the "practical" route with stunts and special effects, they still employ a ton of digital trickery to fill in gaps. This technology didn't exist in 1979, to the degree that Landis and company needed to deploy, so ninety-nine percent of the on-screen destruction--from the mall chase, to the dozens of police cars pursuing the "Bluesmobile" down Lower Wacker Drive, to a scene in which Jake and Elwood run a pack of Nazi demonstrators off a bridge--was all done using stunt performers and actual vehicles in real settings.

For me, at least half the thrill of this movie came from marvelling at what went into making it (from permits, to insurance, to just plain guts and imagination). Friend and fellow critic Patrick McDonald, of The Chicago Film Tour, informed me that John Landis destroyed 103 cars in filming The Blues Brothers. They die spectacular deaths, hurling into one another and forming piles of busted metal that look like a giant, invisible child going to town on his toys. The scenes escalate in scale and mischief, and I finally got what Landis and company were laying down.

The music helped, too. Aside from the surprisingly conventional James Brown number, The Blues Brothers pops with numbers by Ray Charles, Cab Calloway, and, of course, the Brothers themselves. My favorite is Aretha Franklin performing "Think", as she dares her diner-manager/guitarist husband (Matt Murphy) to hit the road with Jake and Elwood. The moment is emblematic of the movie's rebellious spirit, skewing notions of domestic roles just as the titular characters push the boundaries of cultural identity via their obsession with (and some might say appropriation of) the blues scene.

In Jake and Elwood's quest to preserve their childhood home, we catch a glimpse of a segment of rapidly changing society clinging to its uniquely American blues heritage. The blood had barely dried from Viet Nam (not to mention segregation, the official version of which was barely a decade-and-a-half behind us); on the horizon lay an era of unbridled prosperity for those who prefer their country white and polite. The Blues Brothers are criminals, yes, and Landis and Akyroyd don't shy away from giving them their comeuppance, but they are, in the truest sense, righteous anti-heroes. Their wanton destruction and refusal to "come along peacefully" aren't just catalysts for action scenes and jokes; they are rallying cries against gentrification that would have likely been silenced if the characters were actually as black as they thought they were.

The Blues Brothers take on Nazis, rednecks, big business, and a government that will go to ridiculous lengths to tuck away undesirables and dissidents. They live with transients, hang out in a pawn shop, and show a reverence to struggling black diner owners that they are incapable of mustering while recruiting their sold-out maître d' buddy at his place of employment (a fine-dining restaurant so buttoned up that it serves thousands of dollars' worth of champagne and shrimp cocktails to a couple of obnoxious loud mouths--simply because they looked like they should have a table there).

Jake and Elwood's buffoonery isn't cheap, and it isn't random. It's wickedly funny, subversive protest. They know why every note needs to be played. And now, so do I.

*The cops in this film are ostensibly trying to do the right thing (protecting, serving), but they are mostly faceless stunt drivers who exist to get Roadrunner'ed by the free-spirited Jake and Elwood. Those that do have faces (like the great Steven Williams, whose character, I'd like to think, quit the force after the events of this movie and started the Jump Street program) are grumpy and vengeful and impossible to root for. 

**At $30 million, The Blues Brothers was, in its day, one of the most expensive comedies ever made.

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