Reelin’ & Rockin’ – ‘The Blues Brothers’ Brings Unprecedented Destruction and Rockin’

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There is a film that brings together a bunch of genre all-stars from different eras and places them into a cinematic romp. Not content with a heavily populated cast, this film is also action packed, featuring more destruction than had ever been seen onscreen before it. Bringing together old and new, this film marked a certain cultural highpoint that would inspire some mediocre runoff to drip down. No, I’m not referring to The Expendables. I’m referring to The Blues Brothers.

The Blues Brothers is the rarest of films – a good Saturday Night Live movie. Not only is it the first SNL movie, The Blues Brothers is the best (the only other ones of discernable quality are Wayne’s World and MacGruber) of the SNL crop. Though his output has considerably waned in the past few decades, the beginning of John Landis’ career starts with one of the most impressive hot streaks for a young filmmaker – Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House, Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, and Trading Places are all classics in their respective genres. With The Blues Brothers, Landis combines The T.A.M.I. Show’s music with high-octane chaos of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and the complete disregard for physics of Looney Tunes.

Jake (John Belushi) and Elwood (Dan Aykroyd), two felonious musicians, must reunite their old rhythm and blues band in order to raise money to save the orphanage they grew up in. Along the way the two draw the ire of the Illinois State Police, Jake’s ex- fiancé, a country-western band, the owner of a honky-tonk bar, and the Illinois Nazi Party. Early on, the film establishes that it’s not beholden to anything resembling reality. After picking up his brother from prison in a beat up old police car, Elwood guns it over a bridge, making an impossible jump. These moments keep happening. Whether the ethereal floating nun or everybody walking away from a building demolition unscathed, early and often the film establishes that it doesn’t take place on our own plane of existence.

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The list of things that would get me into church begins and ends with James Brown.

Assembling a deep roster of music legends, The Blues Brothers features performances from James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, and Cab Calloway. The backing band for the Blues Brothers is also equally impressive. Donald “Duck” Dunn and Steve “The Colonel” Cropper were in Booker T & the MGs. Matt “Guitar” Murphy played on records for Howlin’ Wolf and Memphis Slim. The drummer, Willie “Too Big” Hall played on countless records for the great Stax-Volt recording label out of Memphis. While the soundtrack is predominantly R&B, the brief moment when the band starts playing Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man, among other country tunes, illustrate how closely intertwined the musical genres are.

The film also boasts a great roster of supporting actors. Carrie Fisher as Jake’s ex who seeks vengeance, John Candy as the arrogant police officer leading the hunt for the brothers, Charles Napier as the lead of the country band The Good Ol’ Boys, Henry Gibson as the head of the Illinois Nazi Party, and Kathleen Freeman as the head nun of the orphanage. To top everything off, the film features cameos by Twiggy, Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee Herman), Steven Spielberg, and Frank Oz, the voice of Miss Piggy. There’s a brief nod to Oz’s work when a toy store customer asks, “Do you have Miss Piggy?” This is immediately followed by the Bluesmobile crashing through the store.

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For all its great music and casting, the unabashed destruction of hundreds of cars throughout the streets of Chicago is something unseen on the screen. While official counts may place greater amounts of destruction on the screen, nothing (except maybe the aforementioned Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) comes close to the sustained chaos of the final chase of The Blues Brothers. Even if we were to completely eliminate the extended chase sequence through a shopping mall, the volume of vehicular carnage at the end is an all-timer. The finale is shot incredibly well, too, with cameras mounted on the cars traveling at high speeds. There’s no rear projection here.

The Illinois Nazis aren’t just included because it’s easy to have Nazis as villains – seriously, who is going to watch a movie and root for Nazis? It’s why they’re still a go-to villain. The inclusion of the Nazis has to do with the town of Skokie, Illinois and a long legal battle over whether or not the American Nazi Party could demonstrate. The Nazis won their court case and were allowed to hold their rally. What Landis and Aykroyd do in their script is give their Nazi characters most of their dialogue verbatim from a 1975 documentary, The California Reich.

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The Chicago Cubs and the Nazi Party – 2 Perennial Losers

A quick sidenote: On the blu-ray of The Blues Brothers there is an extended cut of the film. As is the case with most extended/director’s cuts (Ridley Scott seems to be the exception), many of the scenes reinserted were cut for good reason. The extended cut does the film a disservice, bloating an already bloated running time for a comedy. In the extended cut it takes nearly an hour before Jake and Elwood start reuniting their band, nearly an extra twenty minutes that adds nothing to finished film. Like the unnecessary sequel, the extended cut is only for Blues Brothers completists.

As evidenced by his insistence on making Ghostbusters 3, Dan Aykroyd has very little interest in leaving things to exist in their time and place. Directed by John Landis and written by Landis and Aykroyd, Blues Brothers 2000 was released in 1998 to near universal derision. It’s a film that exists only to placate some desire by Aykroyd to relive the past. When citing reasons that Ghostbusters 3 should never exist, Blues Brothers 2000 is number one on the list. The output of both Aykroyd and Landis has been dismal over the past two decades, neither able to regain their footing. Aykroyd now sells that crystal skull vodka and is their chief spokesman. Landis’ last feature film, Burke and Hare, barely sniffed a theatrical release in the United States. Though Landis’ work is a shadow of what it once was and his son seems like a loudmouth douche, Landis himself is still very active in film history and appreciation. He appears in a number of Trailers From Hell, a unique series where filmmakers provide a short commentary over classic film trailers. At one screening at the New Beverly Cinema, Landis regaled the audience with amusing tales about meeting Sir Lawrence Oliver. Between screenings I walked up to him, shook his hand, and said, “You made The Blues Brothers. Thank you.”

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