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May 12, 2013

The Blues Brothers

by Franz Patrick


Blues Brothers, The (1980)
★★★★ / ★★★★

After Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) picks up his brother, Jake (John Belushi), from prison, they head straight to the Catholic orphanage they grew up in. They are told by the nun who raised them (Kathleen Freeman) that the place owes five thousand dollars worth of taxes to the county. The church chose not to pay this money so that, if the bill is not settled within two weeks, the place would have to be sold to the Board of Education. Jake and Elwood have an idea: get The Blues Brothers Band together, which will be a challenge because the former members are holding new jobs and leading new lives, and throw a concert for lovers of good ol’ rhythm and blues.

Written by Dan Aykroyd and John Landis, “The Blues Brothers” is musical comedy with flavor, pizzazz, and a sense of humor so infectious, what might seem silly or absurd on paper translates beautifully onto film. Its willingness to take risks constantly, like pushing a twenty-second gag of car chases to about five minutes utter destruction (sans casualty), sometimes longer, without losing its vigor, creates many scenes worth remembering. It establishes a universe that is fun to look at and even more enjoyable to listen to.

As plenty of comedies have shown, it is tempting to rest on a one-note joke. A couple of crooks deciding to earn money honestly is rife with irony so it is easy to recycle the elements that makes the situation amusing. Instead of traversing a well-worn path, it attempts to break out from the template by living up to the oddities in the screenplay. For instance, as Jake and Elwood visit various places, they are followed by a mysterious woman (Carrie Fisher) who seems intent on killing them. She wields a bazooka, is knowledgeable about setting up explosives, and she even has a flamethrower. Who is this woman and how does she know exactly where her targets will be?

Part of the charm of the brothers is that although we are told that they have a long history with getting in trouble with the law, there is an innocence and goodness about them. They wear black suits, black hats, and black sunglasses but there they are not especially tough or mean. They walk in and out of places and through people’s lives and they appear almost incorruptible. Interestingly, although many wild occurrences unfold around them, they command an endearing calmness. They bicker twice or thrice but the film holds onto their love for one another. Jake and Elwood come alive, almost like different people, when performing on stage.

The songs are joyous and brilliantly performed. My favorite was by Aretha Franklin, playing as one of the owners of Soul Food Cafe, as she tries to convince her husband (Matt Murphy) to think twice about rejoining the dismantled band. I loved that it takes place in a simple but comfortable cafe, the wife singing her lungs out, dancing in stained clothing, and even less fancy footwear. I was so into the moment, I wanted to sing along and dance. Also, I could not help but imagine how it would be like if people actually burst into songs to express how they really feel or think. It creates a fantasy. The medium is created in the first place to accomplish this very thing.

Directed by John Landis, “The Blues Brothers” has plenty of surprises, from the most unlikely cameos to the way an increasingly complicated situation unspools. The level of humor, too, is fluid in changing gears depending on the personality of the character, or characters, being targeted or breaking a mood on its way to becoming stale. On top of it all, it never loses track that music is a reason for celebration.

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