When I was a kid, I thought, "Why is this R?" Now, I'm an adult and I know it's R. See, MPAAing is hard!
DIRECTOR: John Landis
It is absolutely bizarre coming back to a movie that I loved as a kid. I know, what was a kid doing watching R-rated movies? My parents were responsible, I swear. I think I got a kick out of watching an R-rated movie so I watched it a billion times. This was a movie that I used to be able to quote from memory. But it may have been two decades since I watched this one so I had the rare opportunity to go back to one of my former favorite films and watch it objectively. Normally, this hasn't gone so well for me. (Sorry, Moulin Rouge!, I was wrong about you. You aren't great.) But this? The Blues Brothers? Completely and utterly holds up. I am back to spouting the good word of Jake and Elwood Blues until the cows come home.
I am going to confess something that no film teacher should ever confess. I often confuse John Landis and John Hughes. They are both mildly obsessed with Chicago and were roughly working about the same time in many of the influential movies of the '80s. Part of me honestly probably thought they were the same guy. IMDBing John Landis's career kind of bummed me out when I was watching this movie. Landis also made another movie on my hit list, An American Werewolf in London. Unlike The Blues Brothers, I had only seen Werewolf once and then hid it away for a rainy day. There's also an element to me that feels uncomfortable with watching gore on repeat. So Landis really has some cred in my book and I think that cred comes from the fact that he never holds back. Yes, subtlety is a wonderful commodity in many films, but Landis in unadulteratedly excited about the films he makes. The Blues Brothers might be the most joyful experience I've seen on the screen. Considering that these characters are the real first SNL characters who are showcased in film, this movie crushes. Think about all of the SNL failures. Then there's this movie. I also have a love in my heart for Wayne's World, but Wayne's World knows what it is supposed to be an has no delusions of grandeur. The Blues Brothers takes expectations of a typical comedy movie with some rhythm and blues in it and completely subverts that expectation. It makes the film an epic and unapologetic spectacle, admittedly exposing some flaws in the process, and leaves the viewer with a sense of awe in what he is watching.
I had an epiphany while watching this movie. The Rev. Cleophus James, immoralized by James Brown, might have had one of the biggest influences over me theatrically than any other work. As snobby as I am (I admit while writing a film blog), many of my attitudes to theatrical staging comes from what I'd like to think of as "choreographed chaos." That scene establishes such a tone for the film and lets the audience in on how big this movie could possibly be. It is the perfect balance of teasing how far the boundaries can go for filmmaking without undermining bigger scenes later. I'm positive when producers and studio heads were looking at that script, they had no idea the scope of what was going to happen. The same has to be true about the police chases. There is a scope this movie that is blockbuster with the attitude of a fun indie blues concert film. In this moment, I really believe that my jaw drops more now thinking about the mall chase in The Blues Brothers than I could muster for watching the Battle of New York in The Avengers. Movies like this aren't made anymore. I don't know whether we have become more cynical as a culture, but I can't think of a movie that takes it to this level. The closest I can think is This is the End, but that it its own (pardon the pun) beast.
The Blues Brothers is also genuinely funny. The great thing about watching it as a twelve-to-fifteen year old is that I remembered all of the quotable moments, but there are some real howlers that I probably just shrugged off in the day. If you had watched me watch the movie (and if you did, shame on you!), you would have seen me beaming the entire time. It was childlike. My face hurt from smiling too much during the film. That is mostly on Landis, but I also loved just the relationship between John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. Knowing a little bit about these two powerhouses only adds to the dynamic. Belushi was a force of nature and Aykroyd suffered from anxiety, pretty much the nice guy of the group. Belushi was his outward persona while Aykroyd kind of was the nerd we know him today. But they both came together and played these characters so perfectly that only built on their personalities. Jake has elements of Belushi, but Elwood is a drastic departure from Aykroyd. Yet, it worked. I never felt like Belushi was scene stealing, even in the "How much for your women?" sequence. He is playing amazing ball with everyone else in every scene. I posted on Facebook the Aretha sequence. Jake and Elwood are at the counter and barely interacting. When they jump into the dance, they play the flat affect. The joke works because they aren't scene stealing, which kind of steals the scene in the long run. I know it all seems paradoxical, but that is why it works.
I keep thinking I'm a blues hound because I want to be a blues hound. That seems just pretentious enough to add to my bag o' pretention, (Sure, it's not a word. Whatever. Coinage is also pretentious. Talk to Shakespeare.) But the music in this movie is just perfect. I don't know if "Freedom" was more popular than "Respect" at the time, but I love it so much more than "Respect" in this film. For all I know, Aretha hadn't written "Respect" yet. But man alive, the music in this movie should forever be on a loop anywhere I go. But then I'd be walking down the hall, shaking my tail feather everywhere I went and that seems somewhat irresponsible. The music works and the dancing works. The weird moment was the fact that "Rawhide" became my least favorite song in the movie considering that I'd watch that scene on repeat over and over. Sure, it's the theme song to a TV show and that's really the joke in the movie, but I now just like it for the joke because the musical numbers throughout the movie are so well executed that "Rawhide" only really works for the joke now. I'm going to watch Blues Brothers 2000 pretty soon because my Blu-Ray came as a double feature. (I also had the blessing of watching the theatrical cut of the film because that was also an option on the Blu-Ray.) I remember the music being good in that one, but I don't know if it will hold up.
I'm a little sensitive about sharing this movie with others. I do think it is objectively great. Considering that I've turned my back on a lot of the movies from my past, I feel that I'm clearheaded enough to judge this movie as a critic. It is great. I just now feel super protective of it and I hope that it becomes a gem for everyone else as well.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.