“Jake, you get wise! You get to church!”
Number of Saturday Night Live skits made into movies: 11. Number of tolerable movies made from Saturday Night Live skits: 1. And that one is genius. The reason most SNL movies fail is that skits are basically one joke, which can be pretty funny seen once every couple of weeks. One joke stretched over two hours gets old. Much as I love “Samurai Delicatessen,” I wouldn’t watch it for two hours. But The Blues Brothers were about music. And not just any music, but 1950s and 60s Blues and Rhythm & Blues. Good music. Fun music. And since it wasn’t a one-joke routine, they could build a story.
Directed by John Landis, (one of my favorite directors) The Blues Brothers is an outlandish classic. The brothers, Jake (John Belushi) and Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) Blues bicker with each other, but are pretty unflappable otherwise. They visit the Penguin (Kathleen Freeman), a nun who raised them in an orphanage. She tells them the orphanage needs five thousand dollars to pay the taxes or it will close. It must be honest money. This discourages Jake from wanting to help. Curtis (Cab Calloway) the janitor tells them to go see Rev. Cleophus James (James Brown). Jake wants nothing to do with church, but he goes.
During the service, while James Brown is singing, the Reverend James Cleveland Choir is singing, and the whole church is dancing, Jake gets an epiphany (who wouldn’t be inspired by all that?). Put the Blues Brothers Band back together to raise five thousand dollars. Yes indeed, the Lord works in mysterious ways. Speaking to ol’ heathen Jake to raise money for His charity. Later Jake says “Me and the Lord, we got an understanding.” As a side note, I’ve been to a Holiness Church service, and this scene isn’t too far off from the truth. Except for the spinning in the air part.
However, Disaster seems to follow the brothers everywhere. They end up driving through and destroying a mall, during which they do plenty of product or brand placement. “Hanson Burgers.” “Disco dance haircuts.” “Pier 1 Imports.” Buildings get blown up, Nazi are run off bridges, phone booths explode, Daley Plaza is destroyed, gas stations ignite, etc. And, what the movie was notorious for, the most cars destroyed in one movie, mostly police cars. Hardly seems like “a Mission from God.”
The cast is fabulous, the Laugh-In poet Henry Gibson as the head Nazi, Stephen Spielberg as the clerk, Carrie Fisher as the mystery woman, Steven Williams as Trooper Mount, Charles Napier as Tucker McElroy (leader of The Good Ol’ Boys), John Candy as Burton Mercer, and the rest.
One thing I’ve noticed as I’m writing these reviews is I almost always talk about the dialog. While The Blues Brothers has some classic lines, I was surprised during my re-watching at how few there were. The situations are what’s laugh-out-loud hilarious, not the dialog.
But, what really makes this movie a standout is the music. James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Cab Calloway, and of course, “the band.” The band includes Steve Cropper and Donald Dunn, two members of Booker T. & the MGs (Green Onions), the house band of Stax/Voltrecords in Memphis. They played on hundreds of classics, almost every hit by Sam and Dave (Soul Man), Wilson Pickett (Land of 1,000 Dances), Otis Redding (Sitting on the Dock of the Bay), among many, many others. R&B and Blues had fallen out of favor, even with an upswing in the popularity of Oldies during the late 1970s. Oldies at that time was pre-Beatles rock and roll. All of the artists appearing in this movie had a comeback afterwords. Aretha Franklin even made it back onto the Top 40 charts. And they well deserved it. Like the music and artists, this is one movie that never gets old.
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The Blues Brothers, directed by John Landis, starring John Belushi, and Dan Aykroyd. Written by Dan Aykroyd and John Landis. 1980. 133 minutes, extended version 148 minutes. Rated R.