By Mike Shaeffer
The Blues Brothers, USA, 1980
Directed by John Landis
First, let’s agree that most movie lovers would consider The Blues Brothers, foremost, a comedy. However, with the distinct and deliberate musical arrangement, the wide range of singing styles, and the infectious dancing performed throughout the ludicrous plot, we must also qualify this laugh-out-loud comedy as a musical.
The Blues Brothers doesn’t have the romantic tension and chemistry that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers delivered in classic Hollywood musicals like Top Hat; instead, you have the foul-mouthed banter of brothers Jake and Elwood shuffling and somersaulting their way into our hearts for the unapologetic antiheroes they are. This film doesn’t have all the long, unedited takes and top-notch choreography seen in musical masterpieces like Singin’ in the Rain, but I’ll be content to settle for Debbie Reynolds’ machine-gun toting daughter, Carrie Fisher, every bit as lovely and eternally scorned for being left at the altar by Jake.
It is Jake’s gravelly voice that sets the tone during the opening credits. The first song to foreshadow the epic adventure is John Belushi covering Taj Mahal’s “She Caught the Katy.” We are given gritty aerial shots of Chicago factories and the bleak walls of the Cook County Correctional Facility, where the less fortunate of the siblings has been incarcerated. With references to Jake’s “hard-headed woman” and the “mule to ride”—the (temporary) disappointment of being picked up from prison in a used cop car—it’s a slow but steady song that opens this 133-minute odyssey.
But The Blues Brothers is not just a series of blues covers held together with F-bombs and pratfalls, although all those elements do help. The movie also features rockabilly, soul, gospel, country and western, as well as one of the most recognizable TV theme songs of all time. As soon as you hear Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn Theme, you know that nefariousness is just around the corner. The fantastically familiar bass line has cropped up in a dozen different pop songs, from the B-52s “Rock Lobster” to Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac.” As the newly dubbed Bluesmobile cruises around Cook County, the viewer gets a sense that these wheels are a force to be reckoned with. They are, after all, on a mission from God.
Speaking of which, it’s shortly after a violent and eerily supernatural confrontation with the nun dismissively referred to as “The Penguin” that we are introduced to Curtis. From the moment you hear the line, “Boys, you gotta learn not to talk to nuns that way,” and see Cab Calloway’s wrinkled mug, you know that writer/director John Landis is going to find some way to work Cab’s trademark hit into the storyline. Unlike fellow cast mates Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, and the Godfather of Soul (more on him later), Cab Calloway had one huge hit that overshadowed the rest of his library, and it was “Minnie the Moocher.” Viewers don’t get treated to this chestnut until the final act, when the (reluctantly) reunited band is desperate to stall for time, but music aficionados knew with confidence that Calloway’s call and response, “Heidi-Heidi-Heidi Ho!” would find a way into the eclectic mix.
As Jake and Elwood struggle to reunite the band through any means (including extortion through questionable dining habits), they catch up with a few former bandmates who have regrouped as Murph and the MagicTones. We see a sparse lounge where Murph’s men are slogging through a sad cover of Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.” Murph and the MTs could have easily covered other chart-topping schmaltz from 1980, like “Do That To Me One More Time” by Captain & Tennille, or even “Sailing” by Christopher Cross, but the point is that the once revered blues outfit has now been relegated to cheesy soft-rock covers. The Piano Man’s “Don’t go changin’” is advice Murph and the gang should have followed.
We swiftly segue into a greasy spoon where a no-sass wife and waitress played by the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, warns her wayward husband/short-order cook to “Think” before abandoning her for some narrow tie-wearing, fried chicken-eating fools. The musical number incorporates everything in the diner from spatulas to saxophones, and the Rubenesque back-up singers use spinning stools and sashays to further the storyline and make the song’s lyrics ring true, even if they are ultimately denied.
You can’t reunite the band without getting a hold of some instruments. Our next musical number is “Shake a Tail Feather” performed by Ray Charles. This is one of the biggest song and dance numbers in the movie. It features the largest number of dancers—Chicagoans spontaneously bursting into rump shaking—and the longest unedited shots in the movie, showcasing the energized and diverse locals, moved to bust out their best boogie by The Genius, Ray Charles. When considering how to feature Ray Charles in this star-studded cast, Landis could have just as easily gone with “What’d I Say,” but that playful call and response number would be echoed years later in another comedy with Saturday Night Live ties, Tommy Boy.
In an effort to play a few gigs and start raising some money to save the orphanage, the band foolishly steals the spotlight at a country bar, where their cover of “Gimme Some Lovin’” lasts all of three or four chords. Always thinking on their feet, the brothers adapt and bust out the crowd-pleasing one-two punch that is “Rawhide” and “Stand By Your Man.” As quickly as the bottle-throwing crowd turned on them, they are now avid supporters of this band, whoever they claim to be.
With this newfound success—and the bar tab that comes with it—behind them, the band members beeline it to the main venue, where the standing-room-only crowd is treated to a concert of two whole songs! “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”—were truer words ever sung?—and “Sweet Home Chicago” bookend the comically truncated set list. The former gets off to a rocky start, but the rollicking rhythm, the jubilant refrain, and the corny but confident choreography all come together beautifully. The latter features a jam session of various vamping techniques that allows our title characters to slip away, but not before landing a recording contract and making off with all the cash. The only thing separating the brothers from saving the orphanage is a mere 106-mile ride.
“Ride of the Valkyries” punctuates the end of that insane (and Guinness Book of World Records-holding) 106-mile cop-car chase and pileup wherein the final drivers, two tenacious Illinois Nazis, blaze off a bridge and plummet a cartoonish distance before hitting terra firma. Wagner’s classical cameo is a perfect complement to the otherwise contemporary soundtrack.
After abandoning the Bluesmobile (which promptly implodes), Jake and Elwood hustle on foot through the ground floor of the Cook County Courthouse in a last-ditch effort to evade the authorities and get to the assessor’s office to notarize the payment in full. There is one antagonist they could not foresee—the elevator—so it is fitting that a Muzak version of “The Girl from Ipanema” plays in a seemingly eternal and pseudo-soothing loop.
While many musicals have some sort of romantic, uplifting, or happy ending as part of their formula, we can at least take solace in knowing that Jake and Elwood were not rubbed out by the rival country band, the Illinois Nazis, or the heavily armed and trigger-happy SWAT team. The movie has brought us full circle; we end up back in the Big House. The familiar rocked-up riff of “Jailhouse Rock” takes us through the end credits, where the cast and assorted musicians each get a well-deserved nod.
This retrospective would not be complete without mentioning the song most key to the plot and all its wanton destruction. The song is every bit as essential a vehicle as the Bluesmobile (may it rest in peace). This song’s inspirational force is given to us early in the movie by the aforementioned Godfather of Soul. It’s the stirring gospel number “The Old Landmark,” rebooted with James Brown’s unmistakable funk. Any number of James Brown’s hits could have worked here: “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Get Up Off o’ That Thing,” or even the wildly-inappropriate-for-church “Sex Machine,” but “The Old Landmark,” with its many edits, dollar-store special effects, and a taut trampoline just outside of the camera shot, is the musical choice that best marks the turning point for our bespectacled heroes.
Elwood is clearly not going to save the orphanage, much less reunite the band, on his own. Without “The Old Landmark,” Jake completely lacks the impetus to act. Without Jake, the movie is over (see Blues Brothers 2000), and without the divine intervention of The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, it’s a failed mission. We are treated to an encore of James Brown during the end credits outro. The sad irony here is that eight years after the film’s release, Brown would be behind bars in an aggravated assault charge.
So if Dan Aykroyd is the Fred Astaire who spearheaded the transformation of The Blues Brothers from a few favorite tunes and some sight gags into the best comedy of 1980, that makes John Belushi his Ginger Rogers. Belushi’s Jake needs a special kind of convincing and inspiration to save the orphanage that sheltered him as a young misfit. Belushi admitted to favoring the hard rock of AC/DC over John Lee Hooker before fellow SNL member Dan Aykroyd convinced him to give the blues (and his script) a try.
At the moment when the Reverend James Brown screeches, “Hallelujah,” Jake finally sees the light! It’s less acting and more divine intervention that compels the character to glow a radioactive shade of indigo and begin doing cartwheels. This is a magical high point in the movie where the combined exuberance of the actor and character begin to blur like… like a fat man doing cartwheels.
Mike Shaeffer is a slam poet, playwright, director, and English teacher who lives in Fairbanks, AK.