The Blues Brothers, an audacious, hilarious, over the top, high budget, quirky, zany R-Rated musical film, which showcased the exploits of one Jake and Elwood Blues, two caucasian blues musicians decked in black hats, sunglasses, and loosely fitting yet snazzy suit and tie combos, celebrates its 35th anniversary today.
The film, one of the earliest cinematic tie-ins to come from the long running comedy-variety program from Saturday Night Live (where the characters musically made their debut), remains a high octane cult favorite to legions of fans around the world to this day for many reasons: The crazy quilt plotting and pacing by director John Landis, off-the-wall characters that range from sinister country folk to Nazis that hail from Illinois (the film is set in Chicago), and the music, which is red hot blues and R&B standards sung by the likes of heavyweights of that genre like John Lee Hooker, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway and Ray Charles. Also of course, the performances of the lead characters, Dan Aykroyd (who co-wrote the script with Landis), and the late, great, cherubic, rough-around-the-edges king of the irreverent and brash comedy castle, John Belushi.
With its simple and almost hackneyed plot which is almost lifted straight out of a 1930s Three Stooges two reeler (the boys have a scant amount of time to raise $10,000 to save the orphanage where they were raised), it’s the lunacy of the presence of Aykroyd and Landis’s script, his direction, the slightly off-centered performances by the leads, and a wildly eclectic supporting cast (including Carrie Fisher, Henry Gibson, Charles Napier, John Candy and cameo “glimpse me if you can” appearances by Frank Oz, Paul “Pee Wee Herman” Rubens, and even Steven Spielberg), that really puts the almost 3-hour film (even longer in the released-to-home-video Director’s Cut) over the top.
Modestly successful and for the most part critically panned when first released back on June 20th, 1980, complaints from critics ranged from the excessive use of budget and visual spectacle (highlighted by a high speed and highly destructive car chase sequence near the film’s end which almost outdoes every storied chase scene in films before it), to the fact that the two main characters have little verbal wit. It is those trifle carps that take a back seat to the rabid fan base that has grown for the film ever since its original release. With rapid pacing and musical numbers that elevate the viewer, and are played mainly straight when each are presented, they act as a nice weigh station for the comedy, set pieces, and scenes that could almost play by themselves as individual sketches, if separated from the film. The Blues Brothers is still an inspired piece of ridiculous lunatic absurdity, that if anything, plays even better now with the kind of contemporary leave-your-brain-at-the-door comedies, that get churned out assembly line style in our current day and age.
While there is some truth that Jake and Elwood are rather low key, straight laced, and almost stonefaced throughout the picture, they still have some great eccentricities evident from opening frame to close. And the visual spectacles that audiences have a love/hate relationship with, is almost like a character in itself. As is Chicago, which the film is clearly a love letter to, even though Jake and Elwood destroy almost half the city (which includes a decimation of a shopping mall, downtown Chicago, including Dealey Plaza and the fleabag hotel they reside in). Although marred by controversy due to the oft-written and now almost urban legend of Belushi’s wild antics on and especially off set, none of that is evident in the finished film one iota, and it remains a fun, wild, crazy, musical ride, in which blues legends like guitarist Steve Cropper, the late bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn (both who played on scores of Atlantic Records soul records during that genre’s heyday of the mid to late 1960s), and others, play blues fried musical accompaniment to Jake and Elwood’s surprisingly sincere and ultimately successful front man singing, to create a picture that in a way. It is like an event viewing, akin to watching the equally lengthy and crazy comedic bricolage of films like It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Like that film, The Blues Brothers is best viewed on Sunday afternoons when heavy rain is falling outside, and one is forced to sequester oneself inside. It’s the perfect “get lost for a day” kind of picture to view, and viewing it in that manner allows one to really absorb and savor all the nuanced and definitely not so nuanced visual and cinematic manifestations, which are relentlessly peppered throughout.
But really, however one views it, there’s no denying that after 35 years, the power and sheer hilarity of The Blues Brothers still runs on high, with no sign of letting up. Forget that fact that blues “purists” have decried that the band was just a one-note (no pun intended) joke, tarnishing the reputation of the “real blues artists.” You know the ones. They claim they were born by the shack by the railroad tracks, walked miles in hole-addled shoes, and that white comedians who were already rich and successful, simply bastardized it. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is a real passion and love for this genre and the people who helped make it and shape it throughout, that no amount of synthetic and controlled calculation could have ever conjured up. The passion for the blues genre is strong in The Blues Brothers, just like the passion for The Blues Brothers runs strong. After all, how can one complain otherwise, when they were only on a “mission from God.”