Universal // 1980 // 148 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // April 28th, 2000
"It's 106 miles to Chicago. We've got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses."
How do I describe a movie that makes it as one of the best comedies around, a great action movie, and one of the best musicals (in my opinion as someone not a huge musical fan) of all time? Well, maybe I just did. The Blues Brothers is all of these things. This picture creates more mayhem, over the top scenes and yet brings a brand of deadpan humor while providing some great rhythm and blues from some of the best artists around. Not many movies could put all this in the same story and become anything but a muddled mess, but director John Landis (Animal House, Trading Places, Coming to America) controlled the chaos and made a fantastic picture that contains the mix while remaining a streamlined tale. Add in the genius of star John Belushi and co-star and co-writer Dan Aykroyd to a stellar cast and a great band and this becomes an unforgettable film. Universal did itself proud with this Collector's Edition DVD as well, with bonus footage only seen in the film's premiere, a beautiful transfer, great soundtrack, and quality extras. It's almost a crime that we haven't reviewed this disc before now, as this is a disc that belongs in everyone's collection.
The Blues brothers story begins even before the eventual magic pairing of Belushi and Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live. In the early '70s the two got together and started putting the idea together. By the time they had started working on SNL, things started to gel in terms of making a real band. To that end Aykroyd, a real expert on the blues, and Belushi worked to put together a unique blues sound; combining the trademark Memphis style guitars with a flashy New York horn section. Fronting some top of the line talent was Belushi and Aykroyd, who arguably weren't as talented as the musicians behind them, but had a chemistry and mystique, along with no small degree of ability that gelled into a group that people would instantly recognize and enjoy. In fact, even before the movie, and with only a little exposure on SNL, the band opened for Steve Martin and did an album from that performance that is today the biggest selling blues album of all time. In some ways the Blues Brothers did more to promote R&B music than anyone. The movie came after the album, and a mammoth 300 page plus script was written by Dan Aykroyd (delivered to Universal in the covers of a phone book) which was whittled down and condensed into a real movie format by Landis afterward.
The movie went in some ways where no film had gone before. Having found an out-of-business shopping mall in Harvey, IL they set it up and proceeded to destroy it with a huge car chase running over and through the stores. They wrecked over a hundred cars. They used dozens of stunt men and over a hundred national guard troops, 4 tanks, two helicopters, and over a dozen black and white Chrysler sedans as the "Bluesmobile." They took over downtown Chicago on weekends and holidays to race dozens of cars at over 100mph down the city streets. They dropped a Pinto station wagon from a great height so you could see it fall with the Sears Tower and the Chicago skyline in the background as it fell. And this is just the action parts of the picture. For the musical parts, besides the Blues Brothers band which was quite good, they had R&B legends such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, and Cab Calloway all performing. Combining both stage performances and more traditional "out of the blue" numbers the movie is filled with great music.
Competing with and often overshadowing the great car chases and music was the comedy. In fact many people think of this film only as a comedy. When times call for it Aykroyd and Belushi can go over the top, such as when they visit a fancy restaurant and Belushi demands a price for a stuffy patron to sell his daughters. But most of the humor, and the biggest laughs come from the scenes where the pair keep a deadpan delivery. A building blows up with them in it and the two pick themselves up from the rubble and say "It's time to go to work." A phone booth gets shot high into the air with them in it from a giant explosion and the only thing on their minds when it lands is grabbing the coins from the shattered payphone. As they drive through a mall destroying it they calmly comment on what the stores have on sale. It's all hilarious and shows true comic genius to combine this restrained delivery in the midst of madcap chaos.
There is so much to like in this movie. The supporting cast was wonderful. Kathleen Freeman (Support Your Local Sheriff, and a hundred other movies) as the supernatural nun who raised the two brothers. John Candy (Uncle Buck, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Spaceballs) as the cop looking for the menaces to traffic. Henry Gibson (Magnolia, Innerspace, Laugh In) as the leader of the "National Socialist White People's Party" who is also after the pair for driving literally through their Nazi march. Carrie Fischer (Star Wars et al) as the disgruntled girlfriend with heavy weaponry. And so many more. John Landis always likes to stick other filmmakers in his movies for cameos, and Frank Oz (Bowfinger, Labyrinth, the voice of Star Wars' Yoda) and Steven Spielberg (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Hook, Saving Private Ryan, like I needed to tell you who He is) both make short but funny appearances. There is even a moment with Paul Reubens (Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Mystery Men). Just spotting faces makes for fun.
I'll just insert a comment here that the film cost 27 million bucks to make; a huge investment at the time. Studio execs were actually worried the film would flop; saying only black people would come to see it. It made 80 million at the box office, very respectable for the time, and of course has made much more over the years.
I'm not going to do a detailed plot synopsis; most of you have seen the movie and if you haven't, then just trust me and at least rent it. Everyone should see this movie at least once. In a nutshell though the movie is the story of Jake and Elwood Blues, two small time criminals who grew up immersed in the blues. After Jake gets out of Joliet prison, they find they need to come up with $5000 fast to save the orphanage they grew up in. And the fussy Penguin (the nun played by Kathleen Freeman) won't take stolen money. So they have to get their old band back together and get a big gig to make the money fast. Unfortunately Elwood, though a genius behind the wheel, has gotten so many tickets that he is wanted as a menace to traffic. In escaping those who would capture him, he drives through malls, Nazi marches, and makes everyone who tries to chase him crash in ever bigger pileups. Along the way they come across some great musicians performing, and sometimes join in. During a trip to a wild black Baptist church (led by "Reverend" James Brown) Jake has an epiphany, and Elwood becomes convinced they're "on a mission from God." Along the way they manage to tick off a whole bunch of people who all want them caught. After the big gig, they have to drive over 100 miles with hundreds of people chasing them all the way. This doesn't begin to do the story justice, but as a service I give the extremely condensed version.
Universal made some huge mistakes in the past by literally throwing away much footage and outtakes and other materials that would have made for an even better DVD today, but what they still had available enabled them to release this fine Collector's Edition. 12 minutes of footage that was cut immediately after the premiere for time pressures were found and remastered into the movie. These scenes do a little better at allowing you to understand a few things that happen in the film. Even better is the fine anamorphic transfer Universal did for this disc. A tiny amount of grain and a slightly worn print are the only small defects (not really defects on a 20 year old film) that keep this from being reference quality. The print may have been a bit worn but there were no nicks or defects in the resulting transfer. Colors are clear and the level of detail is crisp and fine without overenhancement or other artifacts. Simply put, this transfer looks as good as it did in the theater. Very high marks, especially on a film this old.
The soundtrack does not disappoint either. The Dolby Digital 5.1 remastered audio track is spacious and deep, especially on the nearly constant music. Dialogue is also clear and centered. Directional panning is a bit limited but always properly placed when it is there. The music completely envelopes the listener, and it's all good. Bass response is very good as well, though perhaps not earth shaking during all the car crashes. It sounds much better than it ever has before, so high marks again.
There is an exceptional package of extras as well. "The Stories Behind the Making of The Blues Brothers" is an hour long documentary that is one of the best I've ever heard of its type. Interviews with most of the cast and several of the makers offer a great deal of insight into how the film got made and how individual scenes were done. A touching tribute to John Belushi in the form of everyone's memories of him is also a nice addition to the feature. Extensive production notes are on both the disc and in a booklet in the case, and one of the largest still galleries around (over an hour of 5 second looks at each pic) show virtually every aspect of the film, cast, and crew. Cast and crew info about the stars, director, and musical performers was detailed and informative, another above average extra. The theatrical trailer, though full frame, worn, and a bit thin on the sound, was entertaining and didn't give the movie away. I wish studios would do better on trailers these days. Universal weblinks conclude the collection of extras. Only the lack of a commentary track keeps this from being the perfect package, but the documentary makes up a lot for it.
Except perhaps for the lack of a commentary track, I have nothing to complain about here. The disc and the movie are both terrific.
The Blues Brothers was a ground breaking film that perhaps has done more to promote the distinctly American R&B style of music than anything since. It is one of the great comedies of our time, and has some of the best car chases and crashes of any movie. I feel confident in saying that if John Belushi had not died so early and untimely, that he and Dan Aykroyd would likely be included in the great comedic teams such as Martin and Lewis. We have all lost something special for not having had John Belushi with us. This film, along with his Saturday Night Live work remains as the best he had to show us in his career. Universal has done a superb job with this DVD, and remains one of the best examples of what the studios are capable of. If you don't already own this disc, you should.
The Blues Brothers is convicted of entertaining me for years and for years to come. All involved are not only acquitted, but commended, as is Universal for making the picture and this fine DVD. Only as a public service have we put this disc on trial at all. You, the viewer are sentenced to buying it, though I think you'll be happy for it.
Review content copyright © 2000 Norman Short; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 148 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Production Notes
* Stills Gallery
* Cast and Crew Info