They’re ‘on a Mission from G-ahhd!’ Not ‘God’, let alone the high-English, biblical epic ‘GAUGHD’, but pure Chicago Ethnic-Catholic ‘G-ahhd’. The Blues Brothers follows siblings Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd) and fresh-out-of-prison ‘Joliet’ Jake Blues (John Belushi) as they try to re-unite their blues combo. They do this in order to raise $5,000 to save the orphanage in which they grew up.
Its loose plot creates a chain of vignettes and musical numbers that are at once over-the-top and strangely authentic to the blues experience. It is a loving homage to blues music. The musical cameos – from John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Ray Charles – are fantastic. Cab Calloway does a rendition of ‘Minnie Moocher’ that is a tribute to his own showmanship.
But it is also a very funny representation of the below-the-margin existence that both inspires the blues and is the domain of those who endeavour to do it for a living: bad gigs, woman problems, poverty and, of course, Nazis.
The Blues Brothers features the strangest amalgam of enemies in cinema history: the Illinois State Police, the Chicago Police, the National Guard, a country and western band, a jilted hairdresser and the Illinois Nazi Party. John Landis was deft enough to use the loose plot structure as a license to throw a bunch of disparate characters into motion. In lesser hands this would have meant chaos. But each character is driven by such white-hot contempt for the brothers that they are woven together to a single magnificent conclusion.
One can tell this is a fondly conceived film. ‘The Blues Brothers’ first appeared on Saturday Night Live. Belushi and Aykroyd created the characters strictly as a pre-broadcast warm-up act (as much for their own performance energy as for the studio audience). It is a blend of broad and subtle comedy. There are literally thousands of car wrecks countered with some of the coolest understated reactions ever seen on film. The sublime moments are genius: my brothers and I never to fail to laugh at the strange qualification and specificity to the line, ‘I hate Illinois Nazis.’
This film is also in love with Chicago, and Chicago with it. So personal is my relationship to the film as a Chicagoan, I was amazed to discover the passionate following it has worldwide, particularly in the UK. It has the same local identification that Edinburgh must have with Trainspotting (1996). In being so authentically local, its sincerity registers universally.
It’s such a glorious mix of hilarious situations, quotable lines and superb characters. Dan Aykroyd has yet to find a roll to eclipse our memory of Elwood. And great performances abound in small parts from other actors: Carrie Fisher (‘waiting in celibacy!’), Charles Napier (‘we’re the Good Ole Boys’), Kathleen Freeman (a nun known as ‘the penguin’), John Candy (‘Orange whip? Orange whip? Three orange whips?’), Henry Gibson (‘and he’s a Catho-lic’) and Ray Charles (‘I hate to see a boy that young go bad’). Also look for cameos by two famous directors: Frank Oz (‘soiled’) and Steven Spielberg (the Cook County Clerk) in one of the few parts where he doesn’t play himself.
It goes without saying that John Belushi died way too young. The Blues Brothers remains a testament to what he was capable of doing, and a standard for all musicals and comedies when pure joy, energy and commitment are permitted to exceed the boundaries of ‘formula’.
Director: John Landis
Writer(s): Dan Aykroyd and John Landis
Runtime(s): 133 minutes, 148 minutes (USA, extended version)
Soren McCarthy, Cult Movies In Sixty Seconds: The Best Films In The World In Less Than A Minute, Fusion Press, 2003.