The Blues Brothers Review
After the runaway success of National Lampoon's Animal House, director John Landis followed it up with another offbeat project: the tale of two recidivist brothers from Chicago who live for the Blues, that particular brand of soulful American music. Joliet Jake Blues (John Belushi) is met on his release from prison by Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd), and Elwood takes his brother to go and see the head of their old orphanage, Sister Mary Stigmata a.k.a. The Penguin (Kathy Freeman). Before chasing the boys out for their filthy language, she tells them that the orphanage will soon be sold off because the Church can't pay the $5000 tax bill, and meeting the old janitor Curtis (Cab Calloway) sets the two brothers on a path of redemption. They head out to reassemble their old band and to play a big enough gig to raise the 5 grand, annoying the police, Illinois Nazis, a country music group and pretty much everyone else along the way. The name of the band? The Blues Brothers.
The title characters were created in the late '70s on Saturday Night Live, the legendary American TV show that has launched many a comedian on the road to superstardom. Aykroyd had introduced Belushi to the Blues in the earlier part of the decade, and in typical all-or-nothing Belushi fashion he went crazy about it. Several SNL band members were enlisted, as well as some legends from the Memphis Stax stable and other assorted bluesmiths, and they released an album in 1978 (Briefcase Full of Blues) which went double platinum. Universal Studios came-a-callin', and Aykroyd set about writing a movie, delivering a phone-book sized tome that was simply unfilmable. John Landis was handed the unenviable job of trimming that screenplay into something more manageable, but he did well enough on the script to eventually prise a huge budget of $24 million dollars from the studio (Animal House was made for about a tenth of that amount).
The movie itself is a curious hybrid, being part comedy, part road movie, part R&B/Blues revue and plenty more besides. The actual narrative that binds it all together is best described as loose, and is similar to Landis' prior movie in that it's simply a means to get all these knockabout action scenes and musical numbers onto the screen. (It shares the counterculture leanings of Landis' previous film too, with this bunch of social misfits socking it to The Man every chance they get, climaxing with a massive display of chaos and mayhem.) But when all these disparate parts are executed so well, the end result is a movie so infectiously joyous that I've barely got a bad word to say about it.
There are plenty of genuinely funny scenes, like Kathy Freeman's slightly spooky turn as The Penguin and the superb bit where Jake and Elwood upset a load of snooty restaurant guests in order to enlist Mr Fabulous, their former horn player. Landis' penchant for cartoon-style whimsy is obvious throughout, summed up by the appearances of Carrie Fisher, playing a jilted lover of Jake's who tries to kill him and Elwood with ever more destructive methods. The chase scenes are similarly uproarious, Landis delighting in destroying as much property and many cars as possible. The (in)famous car pile-ups were all done for real, and have a wince-inducing sense of weight and impact in this age of overly-glossy CG effects. And then, of course, there's the music.
Aside from the class acts in the Blues Brothers band who get deliver more than a few songs themselves, the movie features a stunning roster of musical talent who guide our heroes along the way. James Brown puts in an electric performance as the Rev. Cleophus James, whose gospel-tinged rendition of The Old Landmark gets Jake to see the light. They go off to recruit Matt 'Guitar' Murphy and have to face his domineering wife played by Aretha Franklin, who belts out her signature hit Respect with gusto, but not before we hear John Lee Hooker laying down Boom Boom. We then head straight to Ray's Music Exchange, owned by a strangely omniscient Ray Charles, and we get a terrific version of Shake a Tail Feather. Jazz great Cab Calloway rounds off proceedings with an energetic example of his 1931 hit Minnie The Moocher (performed in the 'Big Band' style much to Cab's chagrin, because he was touting his disco version at the time!).
There's some decent acting throughout the movie too. Both Aykroyd and Belushi are playing against type, creating characters who are walking, talking examples of cool rather than their zany alter-egos seen so often in SNL and other film projects over the years. Belushi is a world away from his force-of-nature performance as Bluto in Animal House, and it shows that the guy had a terrific range. The non-acting members of the Blues troupe acquit themselves reasonably well, Alan Rubin as Mr Fabulous in particular. He's so classy I can forgive the stiff readings from guys like Willie Hall, though he does get a very funny line. You can tell that Aretha's a little out of her depth with this acting malarkey though, and she had a ton of trouble trying to sync her performance to the playback track. Ray Charles is surprisingly good, and James Brown doesn't have to do much more than be James Brown. John Candy pops up in a small supporting role, and he also gets a couple of cracking lines. Henry Gibson is understated - but no less funny for it - as the leader of the Illinois Nazis, while Charles Napier is superb as the irascible lead singer of the country band The Good Ole Boys. Carrie Fisher doesn't do much more than stand there and fire very big weapons, which is probably all that she could manage at the time given the various, ah, distractions of her private life.
Viewed some 30-odd years later, the film still feels so fresh because of the precise timing of the comedy, the outrageous action scenes and the boundless energy of the musical numbers. The performers are putting their heart and soul into it, not for the almighty dollar but because they genuinely wanted to celebrate black American music. A movie like this would never - EVER - be bankrolled by a major studio today, and as it was Universal were horrified at what Landis had delivered, famously telling him that no white people would go to see the movie. So it got edited down from a very lengthy early version (the famous 'Picwood Preview') to the 133-minute theatrical cut which we know and love. And it's only dumb luck that they've got any of the stuff which was cut, because Universal literally junked all the trims and deleted material. The 148-minute extended version comes from a preview print (not the Picwood print unfortunately) which was located a few years ago, and it adds a bit more connective tissue, as well as expanding several of the musical numbers. Alas, the band's spot-on recording of Johnny Horton's country classic Sink The Bismar(c)k has never been recovered, at least in film form. (You can find the audio on youtube.)
The Blues Brothers is a knockabout musical comedy that defies genre and does what it wants to do, when it wants to do it. And I love it to bits.
Well, given Universal's diabolical track record with catalogue releases of this vintage I was expecting the same old, same old. What we've been given is something that looks as it should do for the theatrical cut, and for that we must offer thanks. There are no overt signs of errant noise reduction or edge enhancement, so the image retains an extremely fine layer of grain throughout and is free from unsightly edge halos. You can tell whenever an optical has been cut in due to a noticeable spike in grain and there's some static schmutz on the overlays used for the titles, but overall it's very clean aside from an occasional white speck. You can see a large scratch in the final screencap at the end of the review, but that's very much the exception. The image is very stable too, with the only scene displaying ye olde telecine wobble being the actual title sequence where Jake and Elwood greet each other outside of Joliet Prison.
Blacks are good and deep, with good (but not great) shadow delineation. Colour is by-the-numbers stuff, never 'popping' off the screen but doing exactly what it should be doing with consistent, authentic tones and even-handed saturation. Detail is crisp but suffers on occasion due to the opticals. And there's clearly some sort of diffusion or filtration at work when Jake is released from prison and has that blinding light behind him, because that sequence is extremely soft and warm-hued. However, the utter lack of edge enhancement gives the whole show a pleasingly analogue feel, and I can't praise Universal enough for leaving this one the hell alone.
It's not all sunshine and roses though, because the extended cut is more problematic. I'll let Landis explain how this long version came about (taken from the production notes of the DVD version): "A preview answer print was found with [several] minutes of material subsequently trimmed from the theatrical release. This "lost" footage has been restored...on an Avid, digitally intercut with the new video transfer from the release negative". Now back to me: a print is designed for projection, not video transfers, and so the density is very different from the original negative or an IP. As a result, the extended material looks somewhat over-exposed, with blown-out contrast, colour saturation amped up to gaudy levels and blacks that display a distinct greenish tinge. Not for nothing is the extended version preceded by a disclaimer about the poor quality of the additional scenes.
There's also visible edge enhancement on the added scenes, which was probably done to 'punch up' the perceived level of detail vs. the regular footage, but all it does is draw attention to the extended material even more. Last but not least, lots of footage which is fine in the theatrical cut looks just as wonky as the new stuff in this version. I'm guessing that more of the answer print was used than was strictly necessary to provide a semblance of visual continuity during certain scenes, i.e. rapid cuts between old and new footage may have proved too distracting. Take a couple of stars off of the video score for the extended cut.
So, the video is pretty good. Universal wouldn't offset the goodwill generated by the excellent video quality by doing something stupid like, I dunno, putting lossy audio on there, would they? What? Oh.
Yes, that's right. It's plain old lossy DTS 5.1 and not even full 1.5 mbps bitrate at that! This isn't the end of the world of course, because if the underlying mix is good enough then it'll shine through no matter what. But that shouldn't be used to deflect the issue at hand: Blu-ray is capable of reproducing digital audio that's bit-for-bit identical to the studio masters, and not doing that for a film which revolves around its fabulous soundtrack is a slap in the face. Technically there's no room on this disc for lossless, but I'll cover that at the end of the review.
We gots to get on with it though, and this track is a toe-tappin' treat regardless. The 5.1 mix (a reworking of the original stereo track) is surprisingly lively, with lots of newly-added discrete effects directed through the rears, from applause to bullet ricochets, and the bass easily flips between fulsome support and subtle nuance. Take the scene in the theatrical cut where Jake and Elwood visit Matt Murphy in his cafe; John Lee Hooker is singing Boom Boom outside, and when the guys step inside the cafe you can still feel the bass line quietly thumping away.
The songs are big and bold, and the vocals are presented very cleanly. (It's worth mentioning that they used a different version of Sweet Home Chicago in the original mix, switching to the more consistent album version for the 5.1 redo.) The instruments carry a pleasing amount of fidelity, although splashier sounds like cymbals tend to harden up a bit. Spoken dialogue comes across as a little ragged from time to time, as do some of the sound effects like the tired stock recordings of gunshots. The mix also sounds a touch congested once the cars start to pile up.
The $64,000 question is: Would those issues - some of which are undoubtedly source related - have been alleviated with lossless? It's tough to say without having a lossless equivalent to compare this disc to. Heck, one could argue that any source related issues would only be laid bare by having a lossless encode. But every now and again the track feels like it needs some breathing room, which the added transparency of lossless would bring to the table, and it's a damned shame that we've not been given the opportunity to find out. Still, only the hardest of home cinema hearts would fail to be moved by this track.
The extras are simple ports from the existing DVD and are all presented in standard definition 4:3 video. Stories Behind the Making of The Blues Brothers is a 56 minute documentary made during production of the sequel, and it features lots of contributions from the key personnel, and Belushi's absence is made up for with some behind the scenes footage from the original shoot. It covers the usual bases of how the movie got started, what production was like and so on, although it gets a bonus point for showing a few clips of the boys at work on SNL. Bizarrely the sound has been encoded in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, which is about as useful as a concrete parachute because the audio is perfunctory at best. If ever there was something which did not need lossless, this is it.
The other two featurettes are from the 25th Anniversary DVD: Transposing The Music (15 minutes) covers much the same territory as the main documentary, and Remembering John (10 minutes) is a brief reminiscence of John Belushi. And that's it. The theatrical trailer from the US Blu-ray has disappeared, even though this disc doesn't have loads of alternate language tracks taking up space. In fact, the American platter has more audio tracks than this UK disc! Both releases are missing the production notes, Dan Aykroyd introduction and 'A Day On The Blues Brothers Tour' featurette from the 25th Anniversary DVD, which itself was lacking the photo gallery from the original Collector's Edition DVD.
Humour me here, I'm just gonna rant about the encoding of this disc. The movie runs for 133 mins, plus the extra branching scenes for the 148 minute version, okay, but there are NO alternate language tracks and barely 1½ hours of SD extras - and that totals 48.4GB how? This isn't a troublesome film to encode, nor is it especially lengthy. But remember me saying that plenty of existing scenes look worse in the longer cut? I've looked at the playlists on the disc and the two branched versions only share 48 minutes between them; the theatrical has 85 minutes all to itself, and the extended cut over 100 minutes. That's nearly 4 hours of HD video squeezed onto this disc, and for what? To accommodate 15 extra minutes for a 133-minute movie! The whole point of branching is one of economy, to enable different versions to be stored on one disc without affecting the quality. But when they've encoded 85 minutes of the same footage twice over they're veering extremely close to 'why bother?' territory. Universal should've bit the bullet and put this on 2 discs.
The Blues Brothers may not work as a straightforward narrative, but then it was never meant to. It's very much a modern musical, and in that vein it delivers. Boy, does it deliver. The Blu-ray has its share of AV quibbles, with the theatrical cut looking very good and the longer cut less so, and the lack of lossless audio is galling. The lossy DTS track is still very enjoyable, but the spurious 'doubling up' of branching footage which has caused this situation smacks of incompetence. Special features are limited to reheated DVD extras, which are good but hardly extensive, and there are a few little titbits which have been lost in translation to Blu-ray. A decent-ish package then, but not the great one which this film deserves.
N.B. The screengrabs in this review were taken directly from the Blu-ray disc and have been resized to fit. They are for illustrative purposes only.