Retro Movie Nerd: THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980)

Every once in a while, you come across a film that seems to be universally loved by all who have seen it. In this age of cynicism and being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian, that is a difficult label to bestow upon a film: universally loved. The Blues Brothers is one of those films that earn that label. It’s a comedy that is truly funny. It’s an action film with some timely set pieces. It’s a musical that has rousing musical numbers by legendary voices. What’s not to love? Let’s break it all down, shall we?

Rated R
Running time: 133 min.
Release date: June 20, 1980

The Blues Brothers was an early example of a Saturday Night Live skit that would eventually blossom into a full-blown feature film. It most likely set the bar for future skits-turned-movie, many of which would fail, some even horribly (I’m looking at you It’s Pat). When you’re on a mission from God, there isn’t really anything to keep you from being successful. We get somewhat of a backstory for Jake and Elwood Blues, which is fine. However, The Blues Brothers success as a film depends on the balance between music and comedy. There is plenty of the former, memorable moments of the latter and plenty of action sprinkled on top. The big-screen version of this popular skit is flawed but entertaining nonetheless.

I give to you the opposite end of the successful Saturday Night Live big-screen adaptation spectrum.

When Joliet Jake (John Belushi) is released from prison, he is picked up by his brother Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) in, ironically enough, a police car that Elwood picked up at auction on the cheap. After showing off its capabilities by jumping an open drawbridge, it officially becomes the new Bluesmobile. They visit their childhood home, the orphanage they grew up in, run by Sister Mary Stigmata (aka The Penguin). She tells them that the orphanage will be closing unless they can come up with $5000 in back taxes. The funniest scene in the movie takes place here, as Sister Mary whacks Jake and Elwood with her ruler with every cuss word. After attending a sermon by Rev. Cleophus James (James Brown, accompanied by the movie’s first musical scene), Jake has an epiphany and the brothers decide to get the band back together in order to raise the money the orphanage needs. Elwood lets Jake know that the band broke up while he was in prison, and so the movie becomes a road trip, as they attempt to coerce each band member to return. Meanwhile, Jake and Elwood have given cause for every state trooper in Illinois to give chase, as they destroy a mall…..from the inside out….with the Bluesmobile. Another funny moment occurs when Jake and Elwood point out specific stores while literally driving through every one of them. There is also a mysterious woman (Carrie Fisher) following their every move, attempting to blow them to pieces with various weapons. These scenes didn’t really work for me, as I didn’t find them humorous and were totally unnecessary since there was plenty of other destruction that was occurring throughout the movie. It did have a funny punchline in the end, however.

Nope. This didn’t work for me. One of the only complaints about the plot.

We meet the rest of the band along the way, with several of them performing as a lounge act for practically no one at a Holiday Inn; one of them is a maitre d’ at a fancy restaurant and is hesitant to leave that well-paying gig, so we get some more humor with Jake and Elwood sitting down to eat and taunting the snobs at the table next to them (“How much for your children?”); another member works in a greasy spoon diner run by his wife (Aretha Franklin), giving us another high-energy musical number. With the band collected, acquiring instruments from Ray Charles is the next order of business. Eventually, the brothers run afoul of a group of neo-Nazis (led by Henry Gibson) after running them off a bridge and then make enemies of a country/western band known as The Good Ol’ Boys, after stealing their gig at a country dive bar (where the Blues Brothers Band opens with the theme from Rawhide, which gets more laughs). So with half the state pursuing Jake and Elwood, The Blues Brothers turns into a high-octane chase film with plenty of great-looking stunt work. Arriving on time for their own big show proves to be a tall order, but the payoff is another number from Cab Calloway (“Minnie the Moocher”) and then the guys get to perform and bring the house down. The plot is thin but is kept afloat with plenty of comedy, music and chase action. The elements that work against The Blues Brothers are the scenes involving Carrie Fisher and her vendetta and an interminable running time. The original release ran 133 minutes but I had the opportunity to watch the collector’s edition, which ran for 144 minutes. That is way too long for this piece of work and the movie felt like it was going to stall any minute with all the padding. The musical numbers were very energetic and the comedy pieces that did work were very funny.

The Blues Brothers threatens to burst at the seams at any time with all the excess included in the plot, but director John Landis is able to reign it in **just enough** in order to keep the movie from falling apart under its own weight. The screenplay was written by co-star Dan Aykroyd, who had zero prior experience writing a script. Landis has a big hand in not allowing some of the zanier story elements from getting out of control while Aykroyd knows what is funny, supplying plenty of charm and wit to the story. One of Aykroyd’s funnier scenes in the film comes near the end when Jake and Elwood are running for their very lives from every wronged party, barricading themselves at every stop, and then arriving at the tax assessor’s office to a “Back in 5 Minutes” sign.

By the way, this dude is Steven Spielberg.

John Belushi shows great restraint here as Jake. His comedic timing is on display most in the country bar scene while the band plays the theme from Rawhide. The Carrie Fisher/mystery woman subplot doesn’t really work, but Belushi is responsible for providing a very funny payoff to that whole debacle. Dan Aykroyd is low-key, cynical and has a simple approach to Elwood. His delivery of the phrase “We’re on a mission from God” will leave the viewer cracking up every time he utters those words. The cameos from musical legends like James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Cab Calloway and John Lee Hooker give The Blues Brothers the right amount of energy and are spread out enough as scene segues to keep everything moving smoothly. There is also a funny cameo appearance from the model Twiggy that has a hilarious payoff in a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it moment.

The Blues Brothers is funny, rousing and packed with solid car-chase action. It is also overlong and has unnecessary subplots that add to the movie’s bloat. The Blues Brothers is considered a cult classic and rightfully so. It is not very often when a movie can combine comedy, action and music into the story, provide zany moments that contain a dash of charm and wit and take two beloved Saturday Night Live characters and drop them into a world that is much more expansive than the sound stage they were born on. When you’re on a mission from God, everyone should stop, watch and listen.

RATING: ***1/2 – Flawed but overly enjoyable.

Remember, for more reviews check out Retro Movie Nerd.