Why ‘The Blues Brothers’ (1980) is an excellent musical.

31 Mar

The Blues Brothers posterContrary to popular belief, I don’t inherently despise all musicals – just most of them. For me, there are four categories of musical cinema: those with great tunes and an absorbing story (Singin’ In The Rain,  Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, most Disney cartoons), films with catchy music but an awful plot (RENT, Mamma Mia!), films with unacceptable or badly-performed songs but with an interesting story (Repo! The Genetic Opera, pretty much all Phantom of the Opera flicks) or movies in which everything is heinously wrong (any High School Musical incarnation, Rock of Ages, Les Misérables). Obviously the first of these is the preferred group, but aside from various Disney animations and Muppet movies, it’s rare to find a truly great musical which was made post-1960.

However, The Blues Brothers is the exception to the rule; a golden goose among the flock of turkeys, if you will. Released in 1980, the cult classic stars John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as Jake and Elwood Blues, two impeccably-dressed and hilariously deadpan fading hipsters who just adore the blues. Following a five-year stint at “‘the joint”, Jake reunites with Elwood, but the pair soon discover that the orphanage in which they grew up is in financial difficulty with the taxman. They have eleven days to find five grand, and they undertake a cross-country quest to group the original band back together in order to play one more, money-raising gig.

This film is loony. It starts out like a gritty crime drama, fooling you into believing that this may actually be a serious feature. However, it’s not long before women armed with RPGs, levitating nuns and white supremacists start showing up, amid a mish-mash of ridiculously catchy showtunes. It’s stuffed with insane car chases and features a massive amount of extras too numerous to count (the finale requiring five hundred alone) . Costing $30,000,000 to make and boasting the highest number of wrecked cars in any film – 103!  (before Blues Brothers 2000 broke one more), The Blues Brothers is an ambitious and gloriously over-the-top extravaganza which makes zero sense, but revels in the fact.

Apart from enlisting the stars and hiring a silly amount of extras, a lot of money clearly went into the locations, as this film is borderline Homeric in terms of getting from A to Z, via each letter in between. Chicago is ripped open as several sleazy locations are explored (most interesting is their apartment building, which doesn’t remain in one piece for very long). Friends and potential band members are found in music shops, saunas, gospel churches and diners, with random and unexpected outbursts of musical numbers dotted throughout. The film culminates in a car chase so grand and so unbelievable that its legacy as a surrealist masterpiece of epic proportions is cemented.

A mere handful of the number of cars totalled in the making of this film.

A mere handful of the number of cars totalled in the making of this film.

But put the batshit crazy story to one side for a moment: music is the focal point here, and The Blues Brothers has a surprising amount to say on the matter. Working as both an homage to a dying genre (this was the dawn of the eighties, after all) and a critique of country and disco, it’s one of those films which was clearly constructed with an almost maternal love for its subject matter. For those unaware, ‘The Blues Brothers’ were a real band, spawned from the lead actors’ hilarious minds while working on Saturday Night Live, and aside of course from their own original music, famous faces of funk like James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles all show up to belt out a signature tune or two. This film is basically a love letter to a bygone era of unique, unrepeatable music.

That’s not to say the film is perfect; The Blues Brothers starts off very slowly and takes a while to get rolling. It seems to begin with a vaguely religious tone, as empathy for the suffering (yet simultaneously terrifying) nun gives way to a raucous scene at a church, where James Brown preaches in the funkiest way possible and Jake experiences a divine revelation. The film seems to forget about this almost instantly though, as the spiritual odyssey gives way for battles with rednecks and neo-Nazis. Some may find it overblown and bloated, but I’m not sure if this criticism applies to musicals, which are inherently ludicrous. It might be a tad overlong, but to say that I was bored even once would not be telling the truth; this movie is a blast.

Paced like a rollercoaster as chilled out scenes give way for over-the-top musical explosions, which in turn calm down momentarily before throwing a gratuitous car chase at you, The Blues Brothers is thoroughly entertaining. I think its cult status represents the underground nature of the music after which the film is named; that said, it has aged wonderfully. A funny, batshit insane but still very real snapshot of the past, give it a look-see!

Simon says: ridiculous, nonsensical but never dumb, this film is a masterpiece.

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4 Responses to “Why ‘The Blues Brothers’ (1980) is an excellent musical.”

  1. cinemasamurai March 31, 2013 at 7:26 pm #

    Interesting you noted Les Miserables in the awful category. I’d love to hear some elaboration on this.

    • Simon Mernagh March 31, 2013 at 7:41 pm #

      Hey. My hatred for that film is infamous among my friends – I’ll try and keep it concise!
      I felt that everything director Tom Hooper did was wrong. The camera always seemed to be in the wrong place, so much so that scenes were often unclear as to what was happening. I can’t STAND tight shots of people singing – I dunno what it is, but when people’s mouths fill the screen while belting out a tune, it gives me the shivers.
      I thought the singing was terrible all round. Bar Baron Cohen, none of the voices were up to scratch; particularly Crowe’s character. Since he’s meant to be the villain, the fact he can’t hold his own vocally really undermines his antagonism!
      The spectacle was all well and good, but the film has this almost masochistic preoccupation with people suffering. Now I know they’re meant to be miserable (it’s in the title) but this whole ‘oh boo-hoo, poor me, so much noble suffering!’ is borderline fetishised. It’s weird! And totally missed the point of Hugo’s novel. Although, so did the musical, so I’m not too bothered about that!
      Basically, I was in hell throughout the whole screening. Hated it from start to finish!

      • cinemasamurai March 31, 2013 at 9:13 pm #

        That’s fair, nice to hear a different opinion if nothing else. Yeah, Crowe’s singing was so tragically bad, it didn’t even try and sound classical or operatic. I didn’t so much think it was badly shot, as just get really bored, which is crazy considering the story was told from so many points of view, and I still just zoned out.

      • Simon Mernagh March 31, 2013 at 9:24 pm #

        It was very, very tedious. He can do vocals OK when there’s music backing him (he was in rock bands) but he simply doesn’t have the pipes for Les Mis. I’d say stick him in ‘Rock of Ages’, but I like him too much as an actor to do that to him! 😛

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