Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Blues Brothers

Executive producer Bernie Brillstein was not a fan of 1980's THE BLUES BROTHERS.  He is quoted as saying that "(the movie) was supposed to be about two guys who loved each other.  Instead (Film director John) Landis set off World War III."  Much of the criticism I've read would concur with that thought, that the popular, fictional Jake and Elwood Blues (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) from Saturday Night Live would've been better served by a small character study rather than this "steamroller" of a musical.  As much as I love this movie, it's food for thought.  I can easily picture a low budget, ninety minute indie-like film that maybe traces the brothers' early years and the formation of their crack band.  Quirky, low key humor and lots of music.

That did not happen.  Well, there is a lot of music and quirky humor in THE BLUES BROTHERS,  even some low-key moments, but otherwise Brillstein was on target. This is a huge kitchen-sink affair, a loud, lengthy exercise of More! More! More! that perhaps reeks of unchecked creative ADHD.  Aykoyd's mammoth script was originally delivered to Universal in a telephone book binder.  Hundreds of pages of character (and automobile) details.  Landis had the task of paring down the screenplay to something that resembled a movie.

Even so, the result is a film that does not squander a single opportunity for visual excess.  And not just the oft mentioned car chases/crashes.  Note the scene in the country bar, when Jake and Elwood, pretending to be a Southern act that plays C & W, dazzle the audience with "Rawhide".  Jake finds a whip and soon there is a shot of a cigarette being whacked out of an audience member's mouth.  Completely gratuitous, a moment that has made some viewers wince, or rather laugh not because it is inherently funny but that it shows the lengths to which the filmmakers will go for a gag.

The decision was made early on to go for the carnage.  For large scale crowd scenes and vehicle pile-ups that are really astonishing.  Despite what looks like a blueprint for certain disaster, the movie works beautifully.   It sort of feels like an MGM musical made by restless children.  The barest of plots - Jake and Elwood attempt to get their old band back together to raise money for their old orphanage- is essentially lifted from the 1930s.  Upon this framework are placed many crazy ideas, like a spurned bride (Carrie Fisher) who repeatedly tries to kill the brothers for reasons that are not explained until much later, after she tries to annihilate them with rocket launchers, bombs, and flamethrowers.  Or a group of peeved Nazis (led by Henry Gibson) who seeks revenge after they are forced to jump in a lake after the brothers try to run them over during one of their hate rallies.  Or a country band who were late to their gig.  And of course, battalions of police officers and even military personnel.  Everyone is after the Blues Brothers, and a lot of destruction is left in their wake.

But in between chase scenes are many stops for musical numbers by the likes of James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Cab Calloway.  Each feature elaborate (sometimes clumsy) choreography to add to the fun. Many viewers enjoy THE BLUES BROTHERS for that, even if they are shaking their heads over the rest of it.  The movie is also a wonderful travelogue for Chicago.  Amazing the place still stands after all that happens in this movie.

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