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Director John Landis had a small part in a few scenes in 1941 and spent quite a lot of time on the set, joking and socializing with the other actors. Although one of the funniest persons I've ever met, his enthusiasm became something of a distraction. Spielberg eventually lost his patience, saying, "Why don't you go make your own movie?" Landis's Animal House was at the time considered one of the most successful comedies ever made; the young director took 1941's stars John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd and made The Blues Brothers, as big and noisy and elaborate a musical police chase farce as anyone could imagine.
Two years before, Aykroyd and Belushi topped their many skit-humor impersonations on the extraordinarily popular Saturday Night Live with the "Blues Brothers" routine, which allowed the comics to flex their musical ambitions. Dressed like Mafia hit men, Joliet Jake and Elwood would march on stage and perform as live singers for soul blues songs by the likes of Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, etc. They'd do synchronized dance moves in the style of Motown acts and take turns showing off their own wild & silly dance moves. Elwood played a harmonica that he carried in a locked briefcase. In 1978 we thought it was the funniest thing ever to hit TV, and it's still amusing. Remarkably, Aykroyd and Belushi's hijacking of the music hasn't dated -- as live performance, these skits were the real thing.
Aykroyd and Landis expanded that premise to transform Jake and Elwood into lovable outlaw musicians. Jake is released from the pen, and the two take on a "mission from God" to earn $5,000 for a Catholic property run by Sister Mary "The Penguin" (Kathleen Freeman, wonderful as usual). To accomplish this they round up their old band members (the same talented bunch from the TV show) and pawned instruments, all the while avoiding the law (represented by detective John Candy), a gang of "Illinois Nazis" (led by Henry Gibson) and a furious mystery woman who wants revenge because Jake left her at the altar (Carrie Fisher). Out of desperation the band plays a rowdy country western bar, adding a vengeful gang of cowboys (Jeff Morris, Charles Napier) to the various groups already pursuing them.
The makers of Animal House adapted an idea from another source (a National Lampoon comic book spoof) but The Blues Brothers is an original with plenty of pure Landis invention. His comedy can seem disorganized and a bit scattershot (when in doubt, bring in a 'guest cameo' like Steve Lawrence) and the movie tends to sprawl out rather than play tightly. But 1941's precise and flavorless rush-rush editing hacks all the life out of its grandiose comic set pieces. A typical Landis scene takes its time to make its points, like an old W.C. Fields classic. The show is like a oversized, loose comic strip, but with big stars in likeable, affectionately written roles. Aykroyd and Belushi draw doofus duty and take the humiliating pratfalls; most every other character is treated with respect. Even the cops come out as diligent good guys, despite the scores of cop cars that end up stacked like cordwood.
As he explains in the extras, Landis organized The Blues Brothers as a musical. The wonderful songs with James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway and Ray Charles aren't sidebar interruptions but the meat of the story itself. The music is integrated into the show the way old Cotton Club jazz found its way into Fleischer Betty Boop cartoons ... when a specific performance isn't happening, the movie is always 'bopping along' to one tune or another. Henry Mancini's The Peter Gunn Theme hypes Carrie Fisher's various attacks with bazookas and flamethrowers. The key moment comes when Jake and Elwood need to enter the performance pavilion for the big show. Cab Calloway is doing his warm-up act inside (almost 50 years past his heyday, a movie-musical miracle) and an instrumental stretch provides the opportunity for the Blues Brothers to sneak past the state troopers, stepping in time to the music. As in an old cartoon, tip-toeing funny to the musical beat keeps them from being spotted.
Aykroyd and Belushi wisely let their guest stars do the heavy hitting and keep their own performances as comedy relief. The Country Bunker performance is great nonsense, with Aykroyd belting out the theme from Rawhide as hundreds of beer bottles break against the chicken wire stage enclosure. I guess I need to temper that comment about full respect ... the stereotyped portrait of redneck cowboy music bar fans shows no restraint. When asked what kind of music the crowd wants, the owner's wife says, "Oh, both kinds, country and western!"
The musical numbers are indeed spectacular showstoppers, from the gospel choir members that vault into the air to Aretha Franklin filling her lunch counter with high-decibel lungpower. Elsewhere Landis builds his biggest jokes with the risky tactic of overstatement. Carrie Fisher's attacks blow a phone booth into the air and demolish an entire building; our heroes pick themselves up unharmed from the wreckage. As if celebrating the sheer joy of wrecking things, Landis treats car chase fans to a regular demolition derby orgy, not on side roads or a movie set but on obviously real interstate highways and major Chicago thoroughfares. (The movie is also a sightseer's travelogue of the city). We assume that the show had crews working overtime getting wrecked cop cars back into shape, just from the sheer number of autos smashed and dented. So many cop cars are trashed that we wonder if the city was changing to a new model and sold Universal their entire used fleet.
Landis's impossible gags work because they're too silly for words. Henry Gibson's station wagon drives off an overpass and is suddenly falling from a thousand feet in the air; Jake and Elwood's cruiser does back-flip somersaults and keeps rolling. For the big finish the boys are pursued by hundreds of cops and military militia, as in a Buster Keaton movie. But Landis knows how to keep things in perspective ... he gets a big laugh with a cutaway to lovely guest star Twiggy, waiting patiently in a payoff to an earlier gag.
The Blues Brothers is an exhausting wild ride of the kind that isn't made any more ... movies have become so CGI-constipated that nobody would attempt all the real-life craziness attempted here. Nothing in this show would be interesting today, as the necessary suspension of disbelief has been eroded to nothing. The "did you see that?" brain synapse gets a workout in The Blues Brothers, big time.
Universal's Blu-ray of The Blues Brothers looks fantastic. Shot with great clarity, the show's production design and costuming now stand out better in the ultra-sharp image. The HD audio also carries a bigger kick than before. Simply being reframed to its proper 1:85 ratio makes a big difference. On old flat TV viewings the unfocused compositions seemed to slow the movie down. When Landis cuts to a wide-angle lens, we can now feel the difference; the choice no longer seems arbitrary.
The Theatrical Version (133 minutes) is all prime film material and looks excellent throughout. The Extended Version (148 minutes) doesn't seem longer until one checks the clock -- I think the added material is interesting and funny. Some of the new footage is a generation down, as if it had to be remastered from a print instead of a pre-print element. Color and contrast values change a little, but not in any serious way.
The extra featurettes are built around on-set footage and interviews with participants in the show. Landis is as charming as ever. The memory piece about John Belushi is a pleasant surprise, a thoughtful reminiscence instead of a quickie tribute. Belushi would die less than two years after the release of The Blues Brothers, when his stellar career was still on the rise.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Blues Brothers Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.