The Blues Brothers (1980)
Written by Dan Akroyd & John Landis
Directed by John Landis
Saturday Night Live has spawned many film spin-offs and become the launchpad for many comedic actors. It began with The Blues Brothers, the first movie to take characters created on the show and put them in a feature presentation. The Blues Brothers were established in 1978, and over the years, Akyroyd and collaborator Ron Gwynne developed a backstory about the duo growing up in an orphanage and learning blues from the janitor. With the success of Animal House, director John Landis and star John Belushi were in a perfect position to get The Blues Brothers movie made.
Joliet Jake Blues (Belushi) has just been released from prison after serving three years. His brother, Elwood (Akroyd), picks him up, and they visit the Roman Catholic orphanage where they were raised. Sister Mary informs them that they are unable to pay the property taxes, and in eleven days, the place will be shut down. Jake and Elwood attend a sermon at the nearby Triple Rock Baptist Church, where through the pastor’s (James Brown) sermon, they are inspired to get their band back together and earn the needed five thousand dollars. The Brothers travel around the greater Chicago area, gathering their old bandmates as well as making enemies of the state highway patrol, Illinois Nazis, a country-western band, and one of Jake’s ex-girlfriends (Carrie Fisher).
The Blues Brothers was such a fun movie to watch. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I sat down to watch it for the first time, but I was delighted with the lack of cynicism or ironic winking. I think comedies of our present era contain a mix of broad slapstick and cruel, cynical philosophy. The Blues Brothers is just a celebration of how much the people making this movie love the music and musicians. There are cameos by Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Cab Calloway, and the sense is that Akroyd, Belushi, and company are just so happy to be in the presence of these artists. The music is at the forefront in the picture, and everyone has high energy and is performing their asses off.
I was also impressed with the production value of this first SNL feature film. I was expecting something a little more slapped together and cost-cutting, but what we got was a large scale production. The grand finale with the Blues running for everyone they have crossed throughout the movie plus more was spectacular. I particularly enjoyed the way the police and the Nazis were lampooned throughout the picture. That type of humor almost wouldn’t fly today with studios not wanting to make their movies “political” when in 1980 these were things audiences agreed on.
The humor is still fresh, and, interestingly, the personas of our two main characters are never outlandish. Belushi sounds like Belushi, while Akroyd just plays up a Chicago accent a bit more. They understand this is not a movie centered heavily around the plot, but an excuse to be funny and perform great music. What was impressive was how the musical artists got to join in on the funny stuff. Ray Charles plays a pawnshop owner who the band goes to for instruments. At one point, a young boy enters the store, planning to take advantage of the owner’s blindness only to have Charles pull a gun and fire shots just a hair away from the potential thief.
The Blues Brothers feels like a movie referencing an older style of comedy, along the lines of a Marx Brothers’ affair. The plot is simply a light structure intended to get the ball rolling for the jokes and musical numbers. You don’t get too caught up in the details and character arcs because Jake and Elwood are mostly cartoon characters. The movie never gets hung up on being pretentious or thinking it has something profound to say. It’s a well-crafted piece of entertainment that I don’t think SNL has been able to match.