- Movie Rating -

The Blues Brothers (1980)

| June 20, 1980

The Blues Brothers is the Sherman Tank of movie musicals, and I mean that as a compliment.  This is a massive movie, containing at least two dozen characters, a dozen musical numbers and several massive car chases, and yet it turns out to be one of the funniest movies that I have ever seen.

I have puzzled over what makes it work.  What single element here is sailing it through material that should result in a gigantic mess?  This is a movie that contains not only divine intervention but a jilted lover, vengeful Nazis, Snipers, Rocket launchers, AK-47s, blow torches, and also gospel music as well as jazz music, rock, pop, gospel and a lotta blues.  It also features appearances by Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Carrie Fisher, Steven Spielberg, John Candy, Frank Oz, James Brown, Shaka Khan, Paul Reubens, Henry Gibson, Steve Lawrence and, for no reason, Twiggy.

This is a movie that successfully breaks all definable laws of comedy.  Wholly Moses! proved that vignettes do not a movie make and neither is comedy built on packing in famous people and expecting it to work.  And yet, it does work and I think I’ve figured out why.

The universe of this movie is very surreal.  John Landis and Dan Ackroyd put together a movie that takes place not in Chicago, but on Planet Chicago where there is always a heightened reality.  We’re not dealing with real terra firm here.  That’s appropriate since this is also a musical and Hollywood musicals always worked because of a sense of that heightened reality.  It’s the kind of universe where a musical number could break out anywhere, at any time, and for any single reason.

The story is thin but effective.  Jake Blues (John Belushi) has just been released from the state pen into the care of his brother Elwood (Ackroyd).  Despite the despicable and disgraceful lives that they have led, they are summoned by Sister Mary Stigmata (Kathleen Freeman), who heads the West Side orphanage where they grew up to a task that she says God himself has assigned them: a mission of saving their beloved orphanage which owes five grand in back taxes – they’re on a mission from God. 

This means getting their old band back together to put on a money-making concert.  But since the band split years ago, they have to recruit (read: strongarm) their former bandmates who have moved on to other jobs.  This means visiting a soul food restaurant owned by Aretha Franklin, a music shop owned by Ray Charles and a restaurant where the waiter is Paul Reubens.

Much of the movie is them running around the sleaziest areas of Planet Chicago doing whatever they can to make their mission a success.  And since Jake and Elwood are essentially a wall of destruction in and of themselves, that means that they anger everyone from local cops to the army to the local chapter of the Nazi party to a country music band whose gig they stole almost by accident, and even Jake’s vengeful fiancé played by Carrie Fisher.

The musical numbers break up a lot of car chases, and they’re quite good, very energetic and kind of unforgettable.  I strain to think of one that didn’t work.  We get James Brown singing “The Old Landmark”.  We get Aretha Franklin breaking out a high energy rendition of “Think.”  Ray Charles breaks into “Shake a Tailfeather” which gets all of South Chicago dancing.  John Lee Hooker is down on the street singing “Boogie Chillin’,” and the Blues Brothers themselves sing several songs including a hilarious version of “Stand By Your Man” to calm the angry patrons of a country bar which as provided chicken wire so that the band doesn’t get him by flying bottles.  All of these numbers are spontaneous, high energy and often hilarious.

The musical numbers break up the chase, which takes up most of the movie.  Critics have derided the film for having too many Burt Reynolds-style car crack-ups but I think they take these stunts to a new level.  They’re bigger than they are in most movies, piling car upon car upon car so that a tired old gag comes around and is funny again.

The Blues Brothers is a great comedy, it’s funny, it energetic, it’s smart and it creates a world for its characters to play in.  This is a movie that builds and builds and accumulates its comedy in ways that simply should not work.  This is the best comedy of the year.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1980) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized