Kehr Capsule of the Week: The Blues Brothers (1980)

John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd star as two white boys who love nuns, blacks, and the blues. But for all of the dramatic focus on poverty, the subject of John Landis‘s mise-en-scene is money—making it, spending it, blowing it away. The humor is predicated on underplaying in overscaled situations, which is sporadically funny in a Keaton-esque way but soon sputters out through sheer, uninspired repetition. With Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, James Brown, Cab Calloway, and Aretha Franklin, who steals the show singing a song in a diner.

Follow-up – Kehr’s July 2011 New York Times review of Blues Brothers and Animal House:

The runaway success of “Animal House” gave Mr. Landis much greater resources on his next project, “The Blues Brothers,” which Universal is also bringing out this week in a Blu-ray edition that contains the 133-minute theatrical release of 1980 and the 148-minute extended version that Mr. Landis and his editor, George Folsey Jr., reassembled from a preview print in 1998.

Compared to “Animal House” its pleasures are on a grander scale — with seemingly the entire city of Chicago and much of the metropolitan area serving as a comic foil to Jake and Elwood Blues, the lovably anachronistic rhythm-and-blues twosome created by Belushi and Dan Aykroyd for “Saturday Night Live.”

But structurally it’s a simpler piece, with a plot that might have been borrowed from a B musical from the 1940s: Learning that their childhood home, the St. Helen of the Blessed Shroud Orphanage, will be closed unless $5,000 can be found to pay an overdue tax bill, the brothers decide to round up the far-flung members of their old band and put on a concert. Their effort earns them the enmity of the state and local police (led by John Candy), a country music band (led by Charles Napier) and a group of crazed white supremacists (led by Henry Gibson), all of whom join in a Homeric chase converging on Daley Plaza in Chicago.

The logistics of the chase sequences are dazzling, with armies of stunt drivers, doing things in real time that these days would be performed entirely by pixels. Admittedly there are times when it gets to be a bit much, as dozens of cars pile into one another, creating great heaps of twisted metal and, after a point, a certain numbness of response.

But Mr. Landis gets his best effects — as he does in the many musical numbers as well — by playing Jake and Elwood’s unflappable cool against the frantic activity that rages around them. The film’s climactic chase sequence is a study in parallel montage scarcely less elaborate than the climax of D. W. Griffith’s “Intolerance,” as the film cuts among the brothers’ many adversaries (now backed by the National Guard), all noisily closing in on the government building where Jake and Elwood are calmly ascending to the tax office, elevator music sweetly piping in the background.


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