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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #258: The Blues Brothers

“We’re getting the band back together.” Never have scarier words been spoken by men with darker sunglasses. When The Blues Brothers, the iconic duo played by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, hit the road for a gig there isn’t going to be much road left. They are on a mission from God, and like most men believing they are doing the lord’s work they end up doing more damage than good. Still, if there were more religious men who were into music by James Brown, drove a police car while the Peter Gunn theme is playing in the background, and wore cool black and white suits, I just might be tempted to believe in a higher power.

I first became familiar with the Blues Brothers when the long belated sequel, Blues Brothers 2000, came out in 1998 while I was living in South America. I caught it on TV and had never seen anything like it. Fun fact, for some reason the Spanish translation was Los Hermanos Cara Dura 2000, which literally means the Tough Face Brothers. Also, I am pretty sure in Chile a phone company was illegally using the Brothers’ likeness for a commercial. I guess the Blues Brothers developed a cult following in South America as well. About ten years later, after my family and I had moved back to Canada, my brother bought an anniversary edition DVD of the first movie, for which I was very grateful. The sequel features great musical performances, but the original Blues Brothers music is raunchier and featured the ball of energy that was John Belushi. You just can’t have the Blues Brothers without brother Jake.

Directed by John Landis, The Blues Brothers (1980) tells the story of Jake (Belushi) and Elwood (Aykroyd) Blues, two brothers who grew up in an orphanage in Chicago. At the beginning of the movie, Jake is released from prison for events that took place the last time the brothers played together with their band. Initially displeased his brother is picking him up in a disused police car Elwood bought at a police auction, Jake forgives him when the car flies over a bridge as tough it had a rocket in the trunk. The car is now the new Bluesmobile.

Their first stop is at their childhood orphanage where the stern Sister Mary Stigmata (Kathleen Freeman) has some bad news. The Sister, (or as the brothers call her, The Penguin) says the orphanage is facing imminent closure unless they can come up with $5,000 in property taxes. The brothers offer to steal the money, only to be severely beaten with a sharp stick. At the behest of their mentor Curtis (Cab Calloway) the brothers head to church to attend the service of the energetic reverend Cleophus James (James Brown). Jake literally sees the light of the lord in the church and comes up with a solution: they will get the band back together and raise the money through a few gigs.

Easier said then done. First off the band members are dispersed throughout the Chicago area and some of them don’t want to hit the road again. Then there is the heap of trouble the brothers cause wherever they go. The police start tracking them down after Jake evades his parole officer (John Candy) and Elwood drives the Bluesmobile through a mall after being pulled over. After stealing the gig of a Country band at a redneck bar they incur the wrath of shotgun toting redneck Tucker McElroy (Jack Napier) and his Good Ol’Boys. Then there is the Illinois Nazis whom the brothers run off a bridge and most dangerous of all, Jake’s former fiancé (Carrie Fisher) armed with a rocket launcher.

Given the explosions, the car chases, and the number of armed men chasing the Blues Brothers you could say this is a violent movie, but the violence is so cartoonish you just have to laugh. During the final car chase Jake and Elwood are not being chased by just a few police car, they are being chased by every police car in Chicago. Boats, horses, tanks, and heavily armed national guardsmen are deployed. A radio operator even says: “Unnecessary use of force in the apprehension of the Blues Brothers has been approved.” Indeed it has.

To Landis’ credit, in the midst of it all this remains one of the greatest musicals of all time. During their mission from God the brothers either play with or hear music from James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and John Lee Hooker. The Blues Brothers Band itself does a few show stopping performances, including “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” and “Jailhouse Rock” in the best setting possible.

Nowadays it is impossible to get this band back together because most of the movie’s cast and performers have died, but the soundtrack will live on for a long time. Amen brother.   


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