16 August, 2010

Movie Review: The Blues Brothers (1980)

There are only four reasons to see the original The Blues Brothers movie from 1980, and they are as follows:

1. Scatmaster Cab Calloway delivers a snazzy, smile-inducing performance of "Minnie the Moocher" on a glitzy stage.

2. A hilarious cameo by European supermodel waif Twiggy has the wealthy, beautiful woman ordering Dan Aykroyd to fill up her tank with gas--because in her eyes everyone exists to follow her commands so that she needn't lift a finger. When Aykroyd smoothly informs her that her bill is ninety-nine dollars, her only concern is that she doesn't have exact change. She instead offers him a hundred dollar bill and tells him to keep the rest as a tip, which he graciously accepts. She is the perfect embodiment of the upper crust's complete obliviousness to the workings of reality.

3. James Brown as a singing preacher delivers the full stereotype of what white people imagine black churches are like, complete with a full gospel band, holy spirited dancing, and divine revelations.

4. At an uptight five star restaurant, Jim Belushi, taking on a ludicrous Russian accent, makes an offer to buy "the women" of the appalled gentleman at the table next to him.

Do these four moments justify watching a movie that's almost two and a half hours long? I hardly think so, yet the film somehow landed on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? list of the thousand greatest movies of all time at position #795. The Blues Brothers was the first of nearly a dozen movies based on "Saturday Night Live" sketches, and while it may be the best of them, that's hardly saying much considering the pedigree includes A Night at the Roxbury. I don't want to waste too much time detailing what I didn't like about this movie because it is what it is and it doesn't try to be much more. It's a series of set pieces and musical numbers. It's entertainment. I personally don't think it succeeds as entertainment a lot of the time, but I'm sure millions of people disagree with me.

For what it's worth, I'll list the basic problems I had with the film.

The Acting. Okay, sure, sure. Nobody really expected that Ray Charles would be able to act. That's not why he's in the film. He's there to play the keyboards and sing, not to win an Oscar. I can accept that. But why is Dan Aykroyd so terrible? He tries to pull off some kind of unshakable coolness, but it comes across as complete nerdiness or autism. John Belushi bears much of the comedic weight, but even he pulls a lot of the punches. I could understand if they were going for a straight man/crazy guy set-up, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Dan Aykroyd is just weird.

The Directing. The film is a comedic fantasy. Nothing in the film is treated with much seriousness--not religion, not love, not crime, not even Nazis. Nothing, that is, except for the opening credits, which feature a slow tracking shot over the factories, streets, industrial areas, and prison of Chicago while a down tempo, somber blues song plays. What way is that to open a comedy? What does that add to the film? What kind of tone is John Landis supposed to be setting? By the time the absurd fantasy stuff kicks in--and kicks in in full force, with cars jumping bridges, women touting uzis, and angry nuns flying through the air--the viewer is completely unprepared for such a turn. On top of that, the pacing is awkward and the film is much too long.

The Writing. Screenwriters John Landis and Dan Aykroyd put some thought into setting up clever set pieces, but the plot as a whole lacks any thread of cohesion. The plot is about two impoverished losers getting their band back together in order to put on a fundraiser to save the orphanage they were raised in from foreclosure. It's never quite clear what the band accomplished in the past, prior to Joliet's (Belushi) imprisonment. Were they huge and popular, or were they always complete nothings? They manage, unconvincingly, to fill a huge arena for their comeback show--were these all former fans, or are they just really excited to see a band they've never heard of before, composed of line cooks, restaurant hosts, and ex-cons? The Blues Brothers is a fantasy that demands that not too many questions be asked about the thrills involved, and that's okay, but the fact that not one tiny string holds the film's scenes to any semblance of reality or consistency just seems lazy. Who pays for the extremely expensive dinner that the duo have while crashing the five star restaurant? Surely their friend the maitre'd can't have the most expensive bottle of champagne comped for two nonpaying troublemakers? How exactly do the stage design and the costumes transform during Cab Calloway's performance? And so on and so on.

The Band itself. The film features a lot of awesome musical numbers by James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, and others, as well as a consistently entertaining soundtrack, but all of this music builds to the final performance by the actual Blues Brothers--which completely sucks. Despite the thousands of overzealous fans, the brief show is quite horrible. Belushi has an awful voice, and the tall, skinny, awkward Aykroyd made me extremely uncomfortable with his shucking and jiving. The movie made me embarrassed for him. I know that the numerous musicians within the band are all talented, renowned musicians, and I suppose they do a good job, but for the most part a band is nothing without its singer(s), and it helps for the singer(s) to actually know how to sing. The climactic number is an overwhelmingly corny rendition of "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love," made even more unbearable by the mismatched reaction of the ecstatic crowd. The structure of the film dismisses Ray Charles as a pawn shop owner and Aretha as a fryer of chicken, purportedly saving the best for last, and yet the last musical number is by far the worst.

But what can I say? It's a beloved classic that's made millions of dollars. Maybe I just need to stop taking things so seriously.

The Blues Brothers (1980)
d: John Landis w: Dan Aykroyd, John Landis
(John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd)
TSPDT?: #795


Anonymous said...

Your an idiot. Not one word of what you wrote has any validity what so ever. I came accross this "blog" researching something else, and now know why your just "a blogger" and not an actual critic of films. Its a comedy, its not supposed to be "believable". I don't even know where to start picking apart your critique, but some basic research into the development of the script (which was originally 200 pages long), the actual artists involved (look-up Stax Records), and learn something about R&B music from the 50's and 60's before talking about how the songs suck.

You, again, are no critic.

stephen said...

And you, sir or ma'am, are no critic of critics, particularly since you cannot read (or write). I never said the songs suck (just the performance of the last one), and I have no problem with "believability" considering some of my favorite films are science fiction fantasies. Attempt to understand what I'm saying--my OPINIONS, which are not clothed in any scathing hostility--before posting anonymous vitriol on my lowly blog. But thank you for your feedback.