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The EMPIRE ESSAY: Blues Brothers Review

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Jake Blues, just out from prison, puts together his old band to save the Catholic home where he and brother Elwood were raised.

★★★★

The Blues Brothers opens like a Walter Hill movie. Wide, unpeopled views of Joliet Penitentiary. A prisoner being escorted to release. A confederate waiting outside in the wasteland by the prison. A criminal reunion. The music doesn't even cut in for five minutes. Like Wayne's World (1992) — and, um, Coneheads (1993), It's Pat (1994), Stuart Saves His Family (1995) and Superstar (1999) —The Blues Brothers is a spin-off from the American TV comedy institution, Saturday Night Live, which drew personnel from the media arm of National Lampoon magazine and the Canadian Second City improv comedy troupe.

National Lampoon's Animal House (1978), directed by John Landis, had already established the SNL style as a screen staple, incidentally making a break-out star of fat slob comic John Belushi. Dan Aykroyd missed being in Animal House, though the
character of "motorhead" D-Day was based on him. Belushi and Aykroyd shared an interest in urban American soul, blues and rhythm and blues, and created the characters of orphans Jake and Elwood Blues — brothers by choice not birth — as a way of indulging their craze, more intent on the music than the comedy. The Blues Brothers appeared on SNL, and as a live act opening for Steve Martin. Then, at that precise moment when Hollywood was willing to countenance such excess (ie: 1941 was being greenlit too), Aykroyd produced a script the size of a phone book and Landis climbed aboard.

Like 1941 (1979), The Blues Brothers wasn't much liked when first released. It was too long, too expensive, too wasteful. Besides, everyone was into disco and didn't want to hear from John Lee Hooker, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles or Cab Galloway. Unlike the much-maligned 1941, The Blues Brothers has survived, reinventing itself as a slow-burning cult hit in the decade before films were written off after their opening weekend. Among the first wave of major movies available on rental video, and riding a resurgence of interest in the soundtrack album, the film has become some sort of classic. It's one of those "Oh, my God, look who's in it!" pictures — besides guest stars Carrie Fisher and Twiggy, you get micro-bits from Bill Murray, Frank Oz, Paul Reubens and, famously, Steven Spielberg, and that's not even counting all the musical greats worked into the tapestry. By the turn of the century, the film had finally passed the true test of lasting success and yielded a disappointing sequel, Blues Brothers 2000.

One of the reasons The Blues Brothers didn't immediately click is that it's hard to work out what it's supposed to be — a comedy, an action movie, a musical? Belushi and Aykroyd (in identical black suits, porkpie hats and Raybans) are a classic tall/fat, deadpan/explosive double act to set beside Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Hope and Crosby, Tom and Jerry and Martin and Lewis. But they're also unusual in the tradition in that they are never at cross-purposes, always focused on their twin goals of saving the orphanage and getting the band back together, and rarely argue. Most comedy teams bicker and batter each other until the outside world intervenes and they turn against a bullying cop or landlady. But the Blues Brothers are solid, inhabiting their own world and getting laughs from the way they are always in tune with each other — improvising a cowboy music set ("Rawhide!") when they unwisely book themselves into a bar "that has both kinds of music, country and western."

In the end, this is a 19 8 Os mutation of the 1930s Warner Brothers musicals, with car chases instead of Busby Berkeley dance routines. The setting is realistic, observed with affection (it's a great showcase for Chicago without glamorising the city) and the showbiz characters are torn between their art and the practicalities of earning a living. Landis, who has a real feel for American music, puts songs everywhere (even the elevator musak and overheard radio licks are significant) and goes beyond the posings of Fame (1980) to give the music back to the people.

Belushi and Aykroyd dance like cartoon characters, with backflips and body-stretches, but everyone else moves like a real person. In the Twistin' number, a pen clatters onto the ground as a group of bystanders jive, and Landis lets the detail stand in the edit.
There's an echo of those hideous all-star chase films — The Great Race (1965), It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), Monte Carlo Or Bust (1969), The Cannonball Run (1981) — in Landis' love of cameos, multi-car pile-ups and marauding extras. The finale, as the Brothers rush to give Spielberg the money to save the orphanage, throws in cops, state troopers, a country and western band (The Good Ole Boys), Illinois Nazis (The American Socialist White Peoples' Party, whose acronym sounds a lot like "asswipe"), the National Guard, firemen, SWAT teams, the army and Carrie Fisher.

There's a lot of destruction, but as in Bugs Bunny, no one really gets hurt. Stories of on-set excess, mostly revolving around Belushi's ultimately suicidal drug intake, are legion. But for such a huge picture it's surprisingly tight, with Landis' unerring instinct for the right funny shot (Belushi leaning over the line to sign for his possessions, the hand-moves for Stand By Your Man) and the constant thrum of great music to keep it going. It ends where it began, in prison — with the band behind bars performing Jailhouse Rock, and baton-wielding bulls running in to batter them senseless. Hell, that's America.

Funny as hell with lots of cool action and lots of cool lines.