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The Blues Brothers (1980)

November 19th, 2008 · 4 Comments

Upon his release from Joliet Correctional Center, “Joliet” Jake Blues (John Belushi) is met by his brother Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd) in an old Mt. Prospect police car. Elwood takes Jake directly to St. Helen Blessed Shroud Orphanage to visit The Penguin (Kathleen Freeman), the nun who raised them. She reveals that the Cook County assessor has asked for $5,000 and is threatening to close the orphanage. Jake offers to have the cash for her in the morning, but The Penguin refuses to accept stolen money, and when the brothers curse up a storm, she kicks them out in disgrace. An old bluesman named Curtis (Cab Calloway) who raised the boys and also lives in the orphanage advises them to get churched up.

Standing at the back of the Triple Rock Cathedral to hear a sermon from the Reverend Cleophus James (James Brown), Jake is struck by the holy spirit. It occurs to him they can save the orphanage by reuniting their old band. Elwood reveals that might not be so easy; they all took straight jobs. Pulled over by a pair of Illinois State troopers for running a red light and driving on a suspended license, Elwood notifies Jake “We’re on a mission from God,” and leads the law on a wild car chase through a shopping mall. Laying low from the authorities, the Blues Brothers also dodge assassination attempts by a mousy brunette (Carrie Fisher) who has it in for Jake.

Steve Cropper (rhythm guitar), Donald Dunn (bass), Willie Hall (drums), Tom Malone (trombone) and Murphy Dunne (piano) are found playing a Holiday Inn. Trumpeter Mr. Fabulous (Alan Rubin) is lured away from his job as a maître’d when the Blues Brothers make a scene in his restaurant. Lead guitarist Matt Murphy and saxophonist Blue Lou (Lou Marini) are recovered in Calumet City working for Matt’s wife (Aretha Franklin) at a soul food diner. She doesn’t let her husband go without breaking into “Think”. In addition to state police and the Mystery Woman, the Blues Brothers are pursed through Chicago by a redneck band, Illinois Nazis and the state National Guard as they try to make it from their big gig to the county assessor’s office.

Production history

According to interviews given at the time, John Belushi pinned the birth of The Blues Brothers to the autumn of 1977 while he was stuck in Eugene, Oregon shooting Animal House. Belushi recalled, “There were a lot of rainy nights with nothing to do and this guy I met there, Curtis Salgado, began playing me all this music. It was fucking unbelievable. I was starving for it and Curtis kept asking me if I was really interested. Interested. I couldn’t stop playing the stuff! Magic Sam, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Junior Wells – I walked around playing that shit all the time. I bought hundreds of records and singles. And then I knew Danny had played the harp in Canada, and I always could sing, so we created The Blues Brothers.”

Dan Aykroyd traced the origin of The Blues Brothers to New York, where Belushi would warm up audiences for Saturday Night Live. Aykroyd recalled, “He used to sing rock stuff, and he introduced me to The Allman Brothers and Led Zeppelin. I introduced him to James Cotton and some of the white blues bands that were working up North, like The Lamont Cranston Band.” Aykroyd quickly got in on the act. “We just decided we’d go out and sing a couple of old blues numbers – and why don’t we wear the suits that you wore when you were doing Roy Orbison? That was the discussion. John did Roy Orbison once. He wore the thin tie and white shirt and black suit. And then the shades, you know? And we just added the hat to it and the digital watches and the locked briefcase.”

If TV audiences couldn’t decide whether The Blues Brothers were mocking someone or paying tribute, they weren’t alone. Aykroyd added, “Well, we thought it was a parody at first, but then we started to get in with these heavyweight musicians and we realized, ‘Hey, we’ve got to be pros here.'” Belushi – who played drums growing up in the suburbs of Chicago – was living out a dream. Aykroyd remained dubious about taking their act on the road. Then Steve Martin asked The Blues Brothers to open nine shows for him September 1978 at the Universal Amphitheatre in L.A. Under the guidance of Paul Shaffer, Aykroyd & Belushi assembled a band. The response was so overwhelming that when Atlantic Records put out a concert album – A Briefcase Full of Blues – it sold three million copies.

Pitching an idea for a movie over the phone, Aykroyd & Belushi found a buyer in Universal Pictures, which rushed The Blues Brothers into development. Belushi convinced Aykroyd to get to work on a script and summoned director John Landis to New York. Aykroyd recalls, “Then Landis came in and talked to me at Saturday Night one night, and said, ‘I want this, this and this in the movie.’ I took some notes, and said, ‘Fine, you’ll have it.’ And I sort of cut the script to what he wanted – including of course, the thought and myth that we knew. So from the beginning, it was like Landis and I putting it together. Landis saying, ‘I want the biggest car chase ever at the end of the movie,’ and I went, ‘Okay!’ And I said, ‘Well, I want to jump a swing bridge.’ And he said, ‘Fine.’ And you know, I turned in a three-hundred-plus-page script.”

When he sent the script for The Blues Brothers to producer Robert Weiss, Aykroyd wrapped it in the pages of the San Fernando Yellow Pages to blunt the effect. As written, each member of the band had been given their own story. Aykroyd recalls, “I didn’t even know how to write movies. I don’t think I’d even seen a screenplay. I was told most screenplays were 120 to 150 pages long, but when I sat down to write The Blues Brothers, there were so many descriptive passages in there, just paragraphs and paragraphs of shots, of concepts, of ideas, of descriptions and eventually it just kind of ballooned up.” The script ran 324 pages. Landis recalls, “When I read it and I got these calls from Bob Weiss and Sean Daniel and Ned Tanen, you know, hysterical, ‘What the fuck is this?'”

Landis adds, “So I basically distilled it, rewrote it, and then gave it back to Danny and then we worked together. But basically it was – don’t want to say streamlining because this movie’s anything but streamlined – but it was trying to make it as economic in the story as possible. I really wanted to simplify it to the point, I mean, it really is like Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, ‘Let’s put on a show and save the orphanage,’ just really make it a straight forward story on which we can hang all this craziness.” Shooting commenced July 1979 in Los Angeles. The musical numbers were largely shot on the Universal lot, while the climactic concert was filmed at the Hollywood Palladium. By the time the production moved to Harvey, Illinois to shoot a car chase in the shuttered Dixie Square Mall, the $27 million budget was climbing. It would end up at $36 million.

Released June 1980, The Blues Brothers was praised in its hometown; Gene Siskel ranked it #8 on his list of the year’s 10 best films, while Roger Ebert recommended the movie as well. Many critics outside of Chicago did not. Pauline Kael wrote in the New Yorker: “The film’s big joke is how overscaled everything in it is; this has an unfortunate result – Landis is working with such a lavish hand that his miscalculations in timing are experienced by the audience as a form of waste.” Richard Corliss, Time Magazine: “Alas, more is less, and The Blues Brothers ends up totaling itself.” Variety: “If Universal had made it 35 years earlier, The Blues Brothers might have been called Abbott & Costello in Soul Town. Level of inspiration is about the same now as then, the humor as basic, the enjoyment as fleeting. But at $30 million, this is a whole new ball-game.”

Speaking 25 years later, Landis commented that The Blues Brothers, “got the most hateful reviews. People wrote that it was Hollywood out of control. We had a bunch of films that were way over budget about that same time: Apocalypse Now, Star Trek: The Movie, 1941, Heaven’s Gate and The Blues Brothers. All of those films – with the exception of Heaven’s Gate – eventually showed a profit. But the press kept saying Hollywood had gone crazy, and The Blues Brothers took a lot of that rap.” The film grossed $57.2 million in the U.S. and another $58 million overseas, but due to its costs – and the fact that Animal House earned twice as much – was considered a wash commercially.

Asked in 2005 about the film’s impact, Landis stated, “When we made The Blues Brothers, it was all Bee Gees and ABBA. Now, I get questions like, ‘How did you get Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin and James Brown to be in the movie?’ And I have to tell them, ‘It’s because they were thrilled to get the job.’ To give you an idea of how different it is now, when we did The Blues Brothers, MCA/Universal refused the soundtrack album, because they said no one but old black people would buy it. Then we went to what was called a ‘black label’ – Atlantic – and they refused to put John Lee Hooker on the album! Fifteen years later, John had a platinum album. So The Blues Brothers was successful in its attempt to call attention to these guys.”

If you hate musical numbers, car crashes, R&B, soul, gospel music or profanity, you’ll probably find a lot to dislike about The Blues Brothers, which brazenly – though a bit raggedly – serves up epic quantities of each. For its fans, time appears to have been very good to this film, which isn’t seamless, but stands as one of most enduring musicals or comedies ever made. Of the six or seven movies he appeared in, it’s probably the best testament to the immense talent and likability of John Belushi. Also documented are show stopping performances by James Brown, John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Cab Calloway that if nothing else, make the film a marvel in musical anthropology.

What’s truly awesome about The Blues Brothers is the vision of Aykroyd & Landis’ script, which is filled with enough music, characters and ingenuity for two movies (Landis intended the picture to have a retro, road show release, with an intermission and a running time of two and a half hours.) The difference between this flick and 1941 – which was bloated with zany ideas and cast members – is that unlike Steven Spielberg, John Landis knew his musical and comedy genres. Elwood’s closet sized apartment, the chicken wire in front of the stage at Bob’s Country Bunker, and Carrie Fisher popping up like Wile E. Coyote throughout the film are all terrific concepts, and Landis demonstrates the panache to get honest to goodness laughs from that stuff. Along with Aykroyd & Belushi, he should also be acknowledged for employing so many great R&B musicians who were on the verge of being forgotten.

D.J. Nock at DVD Times writes, “25 years later, it’s easy to see that The Blues Brothers is little more than the sum of its parts. Like a lot of popular films, its reputation seems to precede it; never possessing the quality that its status reflects. But don’t get me wrong – I find the film to be a very entertaining brew, but its ‘perfect’ reputation is probably unjustified. Director John Landis has certainly made better films (especially his masterpiece, Trading Places), and his skills as a filmmaker have been put to more efficient use elsewhere.”

Scott Weinberg at DVD Talk writes, “Easily of the most ebullient and smoothly enjoyable musical comedies ever made, The Blues Brothers boasts a roster of musical talent that must be heard to be believed: Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, and John Lee Hooker, all legends of the music industry, had their careers earn a well-deserved shot in the arm from their appearances in The Blues Brothers. And the musicians hired to play Jake & Elwood’s band? Top-notch artists across the board. The flick’s basically one-third blues music, one-third character-based comedy, and one-third car chase — and all of it’s grade-A prime American Comedy, brewed in the vintage year of 1980.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Brother/brother relationship · Concert · Cult favorite · Dreams and visions · Famous line · Femme fatale · Interrogation · Master and pupil · Music

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 christian // Nov 21, 2008 at 1:40 am

    I love this movie. Landis captures something urban mythic here, and it’s a great musical. I would love to see the full roadshow cut.

  • 2 Marilyn // Nov 25, 2008 at 7:33 am

    As a native Chicagoan who could be found every weekend at blues clubs around the city and understanding the type of humor Second City performers indulged in, this film made perfect sense to me. Siskel & Ebert spoke for people like me – we got it from the get-go. It’s easy to understand why people who had moved on to other musical genres would be skittish about this film, but why dump on the excesses? Blazing Saddles had way more than The Blues Brothers. It’s so interesting to see how fashion changes.

    Thanks for remembering this film, Joe.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Nov 25, 2008 at 8:15 pm

    Christian: The 25th anniversary DVD restores about 12-15 minutes of found footage from the infamous “Pickwood preview”. The Blues Brothers may forever be short 15 minutes of lost footage Landis wanted for his roadshow cut, but does include longer musical sequences. The best is John Lee Hooker’s performance. Thanks for commenting!

    Marilyn: The fact that we’re still talking about The Blues Brothers, as opposed to what an outrage it is that a movie could cost more than $35 million shows where critics rank in the big scheme of things. Pauline Kael is a good writer, but she’s as given to jumping off the cliff as any of the other lemmings. Gene Siskel is still my favorite critic of all time and bully for you that you live in a city as hip as Chicago. Thanks for commenting!

  • 4 Topov // Dec 31, 2011 at 11:00 am

    Was the soul food diner really set in Calumet City? Ray’s Music Exchange is and Jake was born there but the diner was accessed from Maxwell Street .

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