The Blues Brothers: 25th Anniversary Edition Review
"It's 106 miles to Chicago. We've got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses."
The Blues Brothers is so ingrained in popular culture, that many forget John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd actually made it as blues performers – the soundtrack to the film sold more copies than some legends of the genre. Crazy, I know, but the music business is a topsy-turvy world. In most respects, the pair was nothing more than a glorified cabaret act; revealing their love for the music through wild, comedic performances. It’s a well-known fact, that the characters first appeared on Saturday Night Live - the infamous US talent show, that provided a hotbed for up-and-coming stars. The double-act of Jake and Elwood Blues (played so well by Belushi and Aykroyd) struck a nerve with audiences, and thanks to their successful performances around Hollywood, a film was a foregone conclusion.
Many wrongly refer to The Blues Brothers as a comedy. While it’s filled with humour from start to finish, it’s best suited to a musical tag. It’s the heart and soul of the film, and when the picture begins to flag, the soundtrack helps to raise it from the doldrums. Despite the light and breezy atmosphere, winning performances, and brilliant musical interludes, the film pretty much flopped on its premiere. It was only through positive word of mouth that the film managed to achieve solid box office and a loyal cult following. The critics seemed to hate it, but The Blues Brothers is now recognised as a classic; even spawning the lukewarm sequel Blues Brothers 2000. In my opinion, it’s an overrated picture, but more on that in a moment.
Recounting the plot for The Blues Brothers seems a little superfluous – is there anyone reading this page, who hasn’t seen it? The story is a hodge-podge of ideas, which hits the cinematic canvas like the paint strokes of a Jackson Pollock. It’s a messy, altogether silly venture, which seems to exist merely for Belushi and Aykroyd to fool around with a few luminaries of the rhythm and blues oeuvre. But it’s also a lot of fun. After Jake is released from prison, he and Elwood decide to help out their old orphanage; which is collapsing under the pressure of $5000 in tax debt. Unless they can raise the cash and deliver it to the Cook County assessor’s office in 11 days, the kids will be out on the street. After a bout of “divine intervention”, Jake gets a perfect idea – they should assemble their old band. However, this proves to be very problematic, as the pair leave a trail of destruction across America; pursued by the police, ex-fiancés, Illinois Nazis, country music bands, and a SWAT team. Nevermind, though. They’re on a mission from God…
25 years later, it’s easy to see that The Blues Brothers is little more than the sum of its parts. Like a lot of popular films, its reputation seems to precede it; never possessing the quality that its status reflects. But don’t get me wrong – I find the film to be a very entertaining brew, but its “perfect” reputation is probably unjustified. Director John Landis has certainly made better films (especially his masterpiece, Trading Places), and his skills as a filmmaker have been put to more efficient use elsewhere. If there’s anything to applaud about the craft behind The Blues Brothers, it’s the screenplay by Landis and Aykroyd. Full of zingers and quotable lines, it’s a comedic goldmine, which shows an undying passion for rhythm and blues; making it an acquired taste. While the music might turn away some modern audiences, the overall feel-good factor is a definite plus. It’s a good-natured romp – a live-action cartoon that should never be taken seriously.
Suffice to say, it’s a scattershot affair. Some of the material works, some of it doesn’t. The most memorable aspect of the picture (besides the soundtrack), is the scenes of carnage; sprinkled throughout the film at regular intervals. The best sequence, in my opinion, is the frenzied police chase through a shopping mall. Pursued by the police, Jake and Elwood proceed to crash through dozens of shops, causing widespread chaos. It’s over-the-top and rather thrilling while it lasts, making the surrounding scenes seem very dull by comparison. It’s all exaggerated by the finale, which takes vehicular pandemonium to dizzying levels. The sight of dozens of police cars piling up is strangely satisfying, as is Jake and Elwood’s tire-screeching getaway through the streets of Chicago. Landis is on fire during these scenes, yet his handling is rather flat during the quieter moments. Perhaps my biggest problem with The Blues Brothers, is that the tone is all over the place. It’s not sure what it wants to be, and tries to achieve too much.
Yet such qualms are thrown aside during the musical numbers. The mood is set by the one and only James Brown, whose choir-backed rendition early in the film helps to raise the momentum. In fact, every outburst of song is usually worth waiting for – from Aretha Franklin’s coffee shop ditty, to Jake and Elwood’s thundering live performance in the last act. Thrown-in for good measure, are Ray Charles (in a very amusing cameo), John Lee Hooker and Cab Calloway. Landis and his stars were certainly lucky to get such a roster of white-hot talent, but musicians aren’t the only cast members to stand-out. You’ll also spot Carrie Fisher, John Candy, Henry Gibson, Frank Oz, and – for some inexplicable reason - Steven Spielberg. The Blues Brothers would probably make a great drinking game, since the amount of familiar faces is relentless.
Which leaves us with Belushi and Aykroyd. Both worked so well together, and their sense of comic timing is impeccable. The latter may have written the script, but he gave the best lines to his co-star. The late and sorely-missed Belushi was tailor-made for the slobby Jake, and he’s an entirely loveable rogue; messy around the edges, but with a good heart beneath that trademark suit. Aykroyd meanwhile, is very good in the straight-role, and his singing isn’t bad either. Their performance of Everybody Needs Somebody is a highlight, revealing the films sentimental message in a pleasingly non-sentimental way. Their chemistry is what makes the picture so entertaining, despite the films problems, and the fact that Landis and Aykroyd couldn’t generate the same atmosphere with Blues Brothers 2000 speaks volumes. The film lives and dies on this partnership, and the comedy genre certainly lost a hero when Belushi passed away.
Ultimately, The Blues Brothers is a royally entertaining piece of work, that certainly demands its cult status. While the structural problems stop it from becoming a masterpiece – which some online critics have called it – the film is certainly a must-see for fans of comedy and blues music. After 25 years, it fares better than I ever expected it to…
Some fans may find it hard to believe that The Blues Brothers is 25 years old. I don’t. Not because of its quality, but due to the amount of times I’ve seen it. Countless TV broadcasts, and a poorly-recorded VHS have stayed with me over the years, and the fact that Landis’ film is older than me also helps to give it a timeless aura.
But, you better believe it - The Blues Brothers has reached its silver anniversary!
So, what does Universal decide to do for this important milestone? Release a double-dip, of course! This is the umpteenth release of the picture on the DVD format, which may annoy the collectors. However, it also happens to be the best edition yet. For the completist in all of you, it may be worth tossing the salad. One thing’s for sure – I won’t need to watch that VHS again…
The Look and Sound
Universal provide us with two cuts of the film – the original theatrical cut, and an extended cut; both presented on either side of a flipper disc. While I don’t usually condone these releases, and would have preferred a 2-disc set, the decision certainly helps to free up space for the transfer, but that doesn’t seem to matter, since The Blues Brothers won’t be blowing you away in the technical departments.
Both the theatrical and extended versions of the film are presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), and the prints really show their age. The colours are washed-out and muted, and there’s a heavy coating of grain from start to finish. Some may believe that this was a fault of Universal, but truth be told, the transfer reflects both the budget and the shooting methods at the time. It’s doubtful that the film could look better, even with a costly re-master. With that in mind, the transfer certainly passes muster. There’s a fair amount of detail to the picture, and the blacks are fair, but the image never pops with clarity like a modern-day film. It’s a great DVD of average materials, and probably the best I’ve seen the film look.
The aural elements of the film are much-more impressive, thankfully; bringing to life those musical numbers with a great deal of panache. The extended cut sports a brand new Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, which gives the film a fresh vibrancy. The track makes great use of the sound-field; boasting clarity in both dialogue and music. However, the rears never kick into play, and the sub doesn’t get the work-out it should. Quibbles aside, the film sounds very good for its age. It’s the theatrical edition that gets the raw deal, with merely a 2.0 track – disappointing for those who prefer the shorter cut.
Universal also provide French and Spanish subtitles.
These are pretty groovy; playing memorable clips from the film, complete with sound-bytes. The design is pleasing to the eye, and they are easy to navigate. Naturally, we get a small boost of blues music to set the mood. Niiiice!
There’s a fair amount of material here, which should be of interest to most fans of the film. It is spread over both sides of the flipper disc, and provides a very entertaining look at the picture. The lack of a commentary was very disappointing – a Landis/Aykroyd yack-track would have been brill – but the features are worth a look. It’s certainly an improvement on past copies, which is something…
The supplements are mostly in featurette form. “Creating The Blues Brothers” runs for an hour, and as the title would suggest, concerns the genesis of the film from idea to release. Cast and crew members including Aykroyd, Landis and the rest of the blues band discuss making the film; especially the origins of the SNL sketch that gave birth to Jake and Elwood. It goes into some pleasing detail, from the problems encountered during the shoot, to the success of the soundtrack, to getting the famous blues performers to appear. This is an insightful and entertaining piece, that just about makes up for the lack of a commentary.
Side B begins with an introduction by Aykroyd on the theatrical cut, followed by a 7-minute recording of a “Blues Brothers” performance in San Diego, at the infamous House of Blues. It features Aykroyd and Jim Belushi – the brother of John. It was shot on video, so the quality isn’t fantastic, but the performance is worth seeing. The pair gave it their all, and the audience seems enthusiastic about the whole affair.
“Transposing The Music” is a 15-minute piece that mixes modern-day interviews with period footage. It’s also worth a look, but some of the information from the first documentary is repeated here. Much better, is “Remembering John” – a 10-minute tribute to John Belushi. Instead of concentrating on his time in the spotlight like most tributes, it focuses on the man himself; painting a warm personal portrait.
Rounding out the set, are links to the “Musical Highlights” in either cut, a round of production notes, and the original theatrical trailer. Hardly a definitive package, but it should appease most viewers.
The Bottom Line
The Blues Brothers has its fair share of devoted fans, who will no doubt sink their teeth into this fun birthday re-release. While I don’t belong to that cult, I still find the film to be a very entertaining blend of musical and comedy, which has stood the test of time, despite its faults. Universal’s disc has some pleasing features, but aficionados will probably appreciate the choice of which cut they can watch, more. The only question you should ask yourself is obvious: should I double-dip? If you love Jake and Elwood, the answer is probably simple…