Wednesday, April 14, 2010

1980 - THE BLUES BROTHERS, would be a pretty entertaining film if The Blues Brothers weren't in it

Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi were considered the pinnacle of hip in cultural comedy in the 1970's and 80's.  Watching their mediocre performances in The Blues Brothers leaves me scratching my head as to what they were all about 20 years later.

Aykroyd took their two Saturday Night Live characters Jake and Elwood Blues and along with the director John Landis developed them into a large scale musical/comedy film.  Aykroyd's idea of having two white guys dressed in black suits and wearing sunglasses is supposed to be the ultimate in hipster cool.  Landis must have seen that Belushi and Aykroyd doing this extended SNL sketch wouldn't hold up for a two hour film so he loaded the film with large scale car chases and building destruction sight gags to keep the audience interested. 

The guest stars in the musical numbers were famous black performers like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Cab Calloway and James Brown.  They are just OK performing their numbers,  Landis shoots them in his usual pedestrian fashion which doesn't really spotlight their performances.  The choreography and staging of their numbers isn't much better. Some numbers use professional dancers on a soundstage, which looks pretty phony even by the standards of a musical filmed on a sound stage.  Other numbers have non dancers actually performing on the streets of Chicago and since they can't dance those numbers look pretty poor. 

Then there are the two stars of The Blues Brothers, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.  I would never argue that Belushi and Aykroyd couldn't be funny, but something about their movies always rang a little hollow.  Once Belushi stumbled onto his Blutto character from Animal House, he  repeated that character in a couple of films until it got completely tiresome.  Belushi tried to move away from the Blutto character in a couple of films.  However his actual performing skills outside of sketch comedy seemed pretty limited.  Dan Aykroyd probably had more of a commitment to this project and an acting career in general but he's not really much better.

The real problem with the stars of The Blues Brothers is that they can't sing or dance.  It's uncomfortable to watch a musical where the leads can't perform their featured songs.  John Landis must have been aware of this.  He doesn't let them sing with any of the musical guest stars and he doesn't feature very much of their dancing.  What worked as a short SNL sketch looks pretty amateurish in a feature film.  It's embarrassing to watch people like Aretha Franklin, or James Brown interact with these two untalented white guys.  The whole thing comes off like Belushi and Aykroyd are doing them a favor by letting them perform for them. 

Once again John Landis directs yet another film like it was a people mover at an airport. He's efficient and gets you where you want to go, but it's really not much of a ride.  Landis always seems afraid to get his camera in close to the action.  He wants to show everyone in the audience what a hot shot he is because he was able to film on location in Chicago and actually wreck all the buildings and cars that he can lay his hands on even if it doesn't have any dramatic value.

Landis just lacks a sense of zany humor.  His idea of funny is to have hundreds of cops shoot at the Blues Brothers and constantly miss them, the joke apparently being that two guys in black suits that stand out like sore thumbs can't be hit by hundreds and hundreds of bullets.

Landis loads his film up with his usual stunt casting.  Twiggy shows up for a bit.  Frank Oz, the voice of Yoda, is in the film.  Carrie Fisher is in a completely useless role as a woman trying to kill The Blues Brothers with a rocket launcher and even Steven Spielberg got dragged into this.

You can however take a little pity on Landis since he had to deal with Belushi's pretty serious drug problems, something he refers to in the "making of" feature on the DVD.

So what is the reason to watch The Blues Brothers?  It's the car chases.  This is probably one of the few films where car chases were filmed on a massive scale.  Demolishing a real shopping mall with real cars and the amazing amount of cars crashed on an Illinois freeway and in Chicago is something to see.

The cost to actually do something like this is now completely prohibitive.  No studio could afford this type of indulgence today.

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