Universal // 1980 // 148 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // October 24th, 2005
"Our Lady of Blessed Acceleration, don't fail us now." -- Elwood Blues
Jake and Elwood Blues were born in 1976 of the friendship of then Saturday Night Live cast members John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, and their shared love of the blues. The Blues Brothers didn't appear in on-air sketches on SNL in their earliest days, but were an act Belushi and Aykroyd used to warm up the studio audience and amuse themselves before the show hit the airwaves. Who'd have guessed that the brothers' adventures would become what is nearly universally accepted as the greatest of SNL's many leaps from the small screen to the large?
The Blues Brothers is the Lawrence of Arabia of films adapted from Saturday Night Live sketches. It's an epic yet intimate adventure, set inside the wicked minds of the titular brothers as much as it is in the gritty sprawl of Chicago and its suburbs. It blends the broadest comedy antics with a sly, understated wit. A bona fide Hollywood musical with rip-roaring song-and-dance numbers, it also offers car chases that rival those in The French Connection and Bullitt. Yet it doesn't feel like a patchwork film at all, but exactly the sort of adventure bound to erupt from the chaotic lives of Jake and Elwood Blues.
The Blues Brothers opens with Jake Blues's (John Belushi, Animal House) release from Joliet Prison after serving three years of a five-year sentence. His brother Elwood immediately takes him to visit Sister Mary Stigmata (AKA "the Penguin") (Kathleen Freeman, The Nutty Professor ), head nun at St. Helen of the Shroud Orphanage, where the boys grew up. During their contentious visit, they learn the orphanage is in danger of being closed. If the Penguin doesn't deliver $5,000 in property taxes to the Cook County Assessor's Office within 11 days, the archbishop will sell the building to the Board of Education. Later that day, Jake sees the light during a rousing sermon by the Reverend Cleophus James (James Brown) at the Triple Rock Baptist Church, and he and Elwood determine to reassemble the Blues Brothers Band in order to raise the money to save the orphanage, the Penguin, and the orphanage's kind-hearted janitor, Curtis (Cab Calloway, The Cincinnati Kid).
Once the band is reunited and supplied with equipment from blind, guntoting Ray (Ray Charles) of Ray's Music Exchange on Maxwell Street, they set about earning enough $5,000 in gig money. The funds appear to be in the bag when booking agent Maury Sline (Steve Lawrence, Ocean's Eleven) gets them a gig at the prestigious Palace Hotel Ballroom. That is, until the boys raise the ire of Jake's parole officer, Mr. Mercer (John Candy, Planes, Trains and Automobiles); a gaggle of Illinois State Troopers; the American Socialist White People's Party; Tucker McElroy (Charles Napier, Rambo: First Blood Part II) and the Good Ole Boys, from whom they steal a gig at Bob's Country Bunker in Kokomo, Indiana; S.W.A.T. teams; the National Guard; and Chicago's Police and Fire Departments. But hell hath no fury like a woman scorned: The greatest threat to the boys and their mission is Jake's jilted former fiancée (Carrie Fisher, Star Wars), who packs an arsenal of assault weapons and a wicked grudge.
From its opening shots of fuming smokestacks on Chicago's south side and the limestone buildings of Joliet Prison, it is apparent thatThe Blues Brothers isn't cut from the same cloth as other Saturday Night Live movie adaptations. Truth be told, the movie's plot isn't any more brilliant or complex than Wayne's World, Coneheads, or It's Pat. Jake and Elwood's need to find the funds to save the orphanage is a threadbare premise lifted nearly wholesale from any number of Marx Brothers movies, but execution is everything. The Blues Brothers' richness of detail makes its expository first act feel entirely organic. The brothers' relationship with one another makes the otherwise mechanical plot set-up transparent to the viewer, as does their hysterically antagonistic encounter with the Penguin. And the streets of Chicago supply a wealth of gritty eye candy.
The impact on the quality of The Blues Brothers from its having been not only set in Chicago but made by men who knew and loved the city can't be underestimated. Saturday Night may have been live from New York, but The Blues Brothers is a Chicago movie, tried and true. It shares an anarchic distrust of authority with the film comedies of Chaplin, The Marx Brothers, and many, many others, but the Blues Brothers offers a specifically working class, Midwestern variety of anarchy. When informed by a cop that traffic is blocked by the American Socialist White People's Party, who have successfully sued for the right to parade (anyone who lived in Chicago in the '70s and '80s will remember the highly publicized court cases upon which the scene is based), Jake Blues casually observes that he hates "Illinois Nazis." There's no moral outrage in Belushi's classic delivery of the line, only a pragmatic disdain at having been inconvenienced by a bunch of fringe whackos -- it's the low-key response of a Midwesterner, pure and simple. The entire film is loaded with similarly matter-of-fact, common sensical mockery of authority figures and their bureaucratic folly.
The Blues Brothers' opening act closes out with the first balls-to-the-wall musical number, "The Old Landmark," performed by James Brown (look for a young Chaka Khan in the gospel choir that backs him). It's in the second act that the movie blossoms into a full-blown musical comedy. It really shouldn't be a surprise that the film holds its own as a musical considering the caliber of talent on hand: Aretha Franklin, as Matt "Guitar" Murphy's soul food restaurant-owning wife, performs a memorable rendition of "Think"; Ray Charles lets loose with "Shake Your Tail Feather," complete with an energetic dance number by Maxwell Street passersby; John Lee Hooker performs a loose and lively version of his signature, "Boom Boom"; and Cab Calloway sings his most famous composition, "Minnie the Moocher." All of the performers (with the exception of Hooker) are backed by the Blues Brothers Band, made up of big-gun veterans of the Saturday Night Live Band including bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn and guitarist Steve Cropper, formerly of Stax Records' legendary Booker T. and the MGs; Billy Preston collaborator Lou Marini on saxophone; and the previously mentioned Matt "Guitar" Murphy, who worked with Howlin' Wolf and Memphis Slim, and backed the likes of Chuck Berry, Otis Rush, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Etta James as a session player for Chess Records. Blues is a music about authenticity, and nearly every performer in The Blues Brothers has it in spades.
If there's a surprise with regard to the films' music, it's how credibly John Belushi stands toe-to-toe with these legends as a singer. The film's second act -- which is concerned with Jake and Elwood's reassembly of their old band, like a Chicago music scene version of The Dirty Dozen -- may be punctuated by musical interludes performed by soul luminaries, but it gives way in the final act to the Blues Brothers Band, fronted by Jake and Elwood. Belushi croons "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love," "Sweet Home Chicago," and "Jailhouse Rock" in an entirely convincing and entertaining manner (the band's renditions "Rawhide" and "Stand By Your Man" are also memorable and hilarious). Our swallowing the goofball antics of the first two-thirds of the flick hinges on the Blues Brothers' show band being the sort of outfit that could rake in five grand from one kick-ass performance. They are.
Like the musical numbers, the car chases in The Blues Brothers offer further proof of Aykroyd, Belushi, and director John Landis's discontent with constructing hollow imitations or parodies of set pieces from various film genres. Authenticity and attention to detail make this picture special, and the chases stand among the most enjoyable action car sequences in all of motion pictures. Early in the movie, the boys romp through an indoor shopping mall, shattering glass and plowing down display cases, with Illinois State Troopers in hot pursuit. The impeccable stunt work is expertly shot to maximize both comedy and kinetic energy. "This place has everything," Jake observes in the midst of the mayhem, reminding one of the shopping mall's central role in the pre-Internet American popular culture of the late '70s and early '80s (only two years earlier, George Romero had lampooned consumerism by making a mall the gathering place of mindless, shuffling zombies in Dawn of the Dead). If the extended chase that comprises the film's finale doesn't quite match the gleeful exuberance of the mall chase, it certainly outdoes the earlier set piece in terms of scale, and proves a perfect payoff to the boys' constant challenge of authority during the previous two hours. The Blues Brothers is an exercise in joyful mayhem that builds to an appropriately epic and thunderous conclusion.
This 25th Anniversary Edition of The Blues Brothers is the movie's second release on DVD, and it is a definite improvement over the 1998 Collector's Edition, which itself was a solid release. Most notably, this new disc offers both the 148-minute extended cut of the film contained on the previous DVD, plus the original 133-minute cut that played in theaters and has never before been available on home video. Die-hard fans of the flick will likely prefer the added context in the longer version, though the pacing of the original cut is superior. The disc itself is a dual-sided dual-layered platter (or DVD-18), with the extended cut and all the extras from the Collector's Edition on Side A, and the theatrical cut and a new batch of extras on Side B.
If the extended cut has been remastered, any improvement is so subtle it's difficult to discern. Luckily, the original transfer was strong. The presentation is framed at 1.85:1 and is anamorphically-enhanced. It offers good contrast and an appropriately naturalistic color scheme. Artifacts from digital manipulation of the source are basically non-existent. About the only thing to complain about is the fairly coarse grain during some establishing shots, but that's a result of '80s film stocks, not the transfer itself (and, anyway, it only adds to the film's gritty authenticity).
As with the original release, the extended cut's audio has been given a full-blown Dolby 5.1 mix that envelops you in the music. The songs are delivered with great clarity, full dynamic range, and a perfectly balanced use of ambient space. It's a dynamite mix of dynamite recordings.
In addition to the feature, Side A contains Stories Behind the Making of The Blues Brothers, the 56-minute documentary produced for the original DVD release. It's an informative and entertaining piece. The only other supplement on Side A is a "Musical Highlights" option, which is an index of the DVD chapters that contain the musical numbers.
Side B begins with a 25-second video introduction to the film by Dan Aykroyd, recorded exclusively for this release. The theatrical cut is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that is equal in quality to the transfer of the extended cut. Audio, however, is presented in Dolby Stereo Surround, and includes Spanish and French dubs as well as the original English track. The quality of the mix is superlative, though it's not as immersive as the Dolby 5.1 treatment on the flip side of the disc.
Supplements on Side B include three featurettes. Going Rounds: A Day on the Blues Brothers Tour is a tepid, home video-quality recording of a couple songs performed at the House of Blues in San Diego with Jim Belushi standing in for his brother. It runs seven minutes.
Transposing the Music is a 15-minute making-of featurette with contributions from Aykroyd, John Landis, Judy Belushi, Jim Belushi, Paul Schaffer, and Howard Shore (Schaffer and Shore were the musical chieftains of Saturday Night Live during the Aykroyd/Belushi era). It offers little that isn't already covered in the longer documentary on Side A, though it does reveal that it was Shore who dubbed Aykroyd and Belushi's SNL warm-up antics "The Blues Brothers."
Remembering John is a brief biography of Belushi. It runs nine minutes, and is comprised of interviews with most of the participants in the Transposing the Music featurette.
The feature's musical numbers are indexed in a "Musical Highlights" section for easy access, just as they are on Side A. And the extras are rounded out by the original theatrical trailer.
Simply put, The Blues Brothers is one of the great comedies of the 1980s. Universal's 1998 Collector's Edition DVD was a quality release, but this 25th Anniversary Edition is the one to own. Considering the disc contains two cuts of the film and couldn't be more reasonably priced, it's well worth an upgrade for those who already own the previous release.
The Blues Brothers -- both film and DVD -- are found not guilty. Jake and Elwood, however, are sentenced to a nickel in Joliet Prison...but only because I want to hear "Jailhouse Rock" one more time.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 148 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Stories Behind the Making of The Blues Brothers Featurette
* Introduction to the Film by Dan Aykroyd
* Going Rounds: A Day on the Blues Brothers Tour Featurette
* Transposing the Music Featurette
* Remembering John Featurette
* Musical Highlights
* Production Notes