Of the cultural royalty ‘80s comedies handed down like comfortable, used clothing over the decades, not even Ghostbusters can go toe to toe with The Blues Brothers’ brand of schizophrenia. The defining feature of Ghostbusters, indeed the source of its disenchanted, abrasive energy, was copied, and somewhat reduced, almost wholesale from the template discovered by The Blues Brothers: boisterous Big Cinema energy fragmented by a nonchalant, almost skeletal cast vividly underplaying the lunacy around them so that they either seem hostile to the film they’re in (in Bill Murray’s case) or vaguely indifferent to the shenanigans around them. That astringent concoction of insoluble elements – bellicose bravura sequences and wizened anti-comedy – stimulated something akin to characters viewing the sudden-onset entropy of the Tex Avery cartoon logic around them as just another part of the day. With all due respect to that epochal 1984 blockbuster required reading though, The Blues Brothers probably introduced the style (although that’s questionable), but it undeniably perfected it.
Rough-hewn almost as a mantra, The Blues Brothers bursts at the seams with the secreting awareness that the narrative isn’t a narrative but an excuse, a set of guidelines, an ancillary happenstance begrudgingly necessary for the film’s true passion projects: musical performances, at least on the surface, but more deeply the film thrives on a rekindled sense of communal effervescence and the slackening of capitalist mental structures. Proudly adapted from a Saturday Night Live act … skit isn’t the word … the original incarnation of the band featured cast members Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi masturbating on stage to their love of blues music (or at least Aykroyd’s love). And I mean metaphorically masturbating of course, although you wouldn’t know it from the sheer vivaciousness of Aykryod’s and Belushi’s musical performances, quasi-talented facsimiles of blues classics done up in the white boy house style that survive exclusively on Aykroyd’s and Belushi’s impossibly charismatic, cathartic enchantment with the material they’re performing. Bodily gyrations and fleshy pirouettes overcompensated for questionable inclinations for vocal arrangement (they are, after all, comedians and not singers, and the performances in the SNL act aren’t comic in the least). The effect is two normal dudes almost bodily possessed, on a mission from god.
The mission: to reverberate blues ardor through the throngs of the masses, to rekindle a more live-wire, bodily rush of momentary abandon lost to the modern material world. For the titular characters, and the filmmakers, The Blues Brothers is also a lament, however mordant it may be, for a now empty industrial and post-industrial world. Blues is their weapon to wash over the spare hellishness of post-industrial disaffection in the process, every ache at once a moan for society’s frailty and a desperate plea to rejoice in the moment despite those frailties lingering overhead.
The film summons the stagnant, weary mood of a concluded world in the flawlessly droll opening sequence. In order, we are greeted with the sounds and sights of disaffection in America 1980, marching in time. Firstly, there’s the soundless vacancy where every metallic, industrial crunch is a jab into your temple. Then, the monochromatic listlessness of the slate grey color palette where the productiveness of industry buggered off but the lingering mental emptiness and unforgiving metal contraptions remained, now devoid of purpose like the blue-collar workers who once captained them. After that, we catch whiffs of the cruel stamp of the blunt editing rhythms, the desperate punch of the characters’ names invading the frame, the framing that scuppers away the humanity of the characters by feinting toward and then hiding their faces or otherwise dwarfing them with punishing overhead shots. Jake Blues (Belushi) saunters out of prison to meet his brother Elwood (Aykroyd). But the arid, desperately unhumming world around them is a premonition of an open-air prison on the outside as well.
The opening is a silent masterpiece of cutting, sound design, and framing, but it’s also a chill of capitalist ennui, fatalism, and the emptiness of a white-washed (white-faced) world disinfected of the throb and ache of the blues as an outlet for expression. In the horror-grafted sequence where the protagonists initiate their quest to save the orphanage they grew up in, the framing of the scene is an aftershock of The Exorcist with a fatally degraded, mortal Jesus on the wall as an omen of their Catholic souls on the line. Here, the two brothers confront a hell of not only metaphysical connotations, but also a hell that bears the distinct countenance of now decrepit, seemingly stretched-thin institutions of social welfare. The film’s sense of oppression then is both mental and material, both upended by the protagonists when they conscript their material instruments, voices, and bodies for imaginative, mental healing.
For The Blues Brothers, their titular music won’t merely mutate into a shield or a coping mechanism but a thoroughgoing weapon of, as Belushi might put it, “jive-ass” liberation that catalyzes the mind to not only escape from reality, but rebel to change it. In the beginning, Elwood picks up Jake in a police car, a freedom flawlessly undercut by how starched-suit and police-like their own white-bread appearances are, a necessary stepping stone and a pointedly unfashionable counterpoint as the two men feign disaffected rebel status in a disaffected world, acting as though caustic cynicism is the key to their solution. Until, of course, they are actually infected with rebellious energy in a church a few scenes later, and the film sees the light. Not only in music and spirituality, mind you, but in a mental philosophy of uninhibited freedom channeled for the public good to reject the ice-cold temperament of mainstream society. The film, and the music of the boys in black, propose that expression in the moment can limber up not only the soul but pervert the body away from the capitalist drive to restrain physicality, buckle down, and act only for your material well being in the future.
Embodied by the religious spirit of beautiful musical fervor the film pursues with fanatical devotion, the formless, slipshod structure of the film, corralling digressions, detours, and excursions into a thorny monstrosity of narrative, is itself emblematic of its spirit of worshiping the moment, finding exultancy in front of you rather than tirelessly prescribing your life to the narratives we impose on our worldviews. Rather than implicitly coercing us to shackle our minds to the need to police ourselves to think about “the next scene” in our films and our lives, The Blues Brothers lives blissfully in the present.
The cobbled-together revue show texture of The Blues Brothers is emblematic of this very liberation, the film’s raison d’ être. Any and all interstitial fluid between the music numbers is yarn to be unraveled, essentially, and the overall tone of the picture is fire enveloped by the ice of narrative, punctured by fire again. With that, the cunning dispassion on display in the narrative is less a dead zone than a counterpoint, a stone-cold, ice-chilled vein in mortal tension with the ever-kindling blitzkrieg of the musical lust. Pointedly, and in a theoretically disastrous move, roughly anything in the film not musically inclined is a slope of shards, a thick slab of flawlessly iced-over anti-comedy that refuses to sacrilize life without music, as if the film is actively foraging for a pulse it can only excavate out of the soul these two white toast boys pine for. A shockingly toxic etching of strife and post-industrial ennui, the film’s immobile protagonists (a plank and a brick that mutate into a squiggly line and rubber biscuit when the music hits them) initially suggest people in a world where seemingly anything and anyone could happen at any moment and people are so disenchanted that batting an eye was never an option.
From there, the film evolves into a parallel universe where narrative isn’t a chip on the shoulder but a malignant tumor to be excised before it takes control of your life. The surrealistic flow of scenes that fly by on intuition rather than logic invokes a world so mirthlessly chaotic that, initially, the only logical reaction is to passively observe like frigid, arctic pillars, as the Brothers do at the beginning (we’re always expecting one of them, probably Jake, to flummox around and turn into the comic buffoon of the pair, but these two broken-down dudes with only one thing left to live for remain straight men throughout). But music also excretes from the film’s deliciously petrified absurdism as well, with the bone-dry comedy providing tonal counterpoint and setting the stage (literally) so that breathing in the chaotic energy and exhaling it as music suddenly becomes an unexpected, illogical, but necessarily feasible corollary to a world that is at once irrepressibly cold and brimming with the potential for uninhibited joy (if you know how to look). Caustic cynical distance arouses itself into active engagement with the world through the artistic flourishes of performance.
In its spastic tonal severance from realism, The Blues Brothers opens the floodgates to project a liquid flow of bodily freedom it pursues with religious conviction. Which is to say, the film lives and dies for the moment, incarnating the musical ebullience it so obviously adores in its free-wheeling structure, rushing from pop-art musical arias to Tex Avery chase sequences (where an excess of 100 cars mutates into a pile-up of Looney Tunes absurdism and post-Hollywood New Wave griminess). Stretching well past the point of reasonable narrative, the film’s top blows off in a madcap jive from scene to scene (as if it’ll keel over and die without getting its fix of music or car pile-ups) as music becomes a literal transcendence or transmogrification of reality, rather than a mere escape from it.
A homeless film on the rails with naught but a sack and its indomitable charisma to its name, reviewing it might then devolve into a kaleidoscopic word-salad scene-by-scene extravaganza, but the film’s slippery scene-to-scene flow can’t truly be contained within any one moment. Performances do linger, from Ray Charles’ especially wonderful turn as a fidgety, mildly harried music shop owner to Aretha Franklin’s impromptu number, filmed like she’s a goddess backed by a Greek chorus in a song-and-dance number that interrupts the text like a knife demanding to sever everything in its path. But it’s the intangibles that matter with The Blues Brothers: its dogged religious conviction, as though intoning “We’re on a Mission from God” with every ounce of sincerity it can muster will salvage the day.
Without spoiling much, it does salvage the day, largely because the film does sincerely believe in the light of temperamental energy as a salve for humdrum listlessness. Amusing insinuations early on tag Jake and Elwood as square pegs trying to fit into round holes in a square world; one woman asks “are you the police?” and refers to Jake as “Mr. Man”, and Elwood exclusively dines on white toast for energy, until the throbbing pulse of music becomes his new dinner, and the film’s. These two square boys feint toward cool outsider status, but it takes the spirit of music to help these rigid-gaited, hardly-vocalizing boys finally talk the talk and walk the walk. And boom that boom.
For often-too-square-for-his-own-good writer-director John Landis, The Blues Brothers did something similar, even if it didn’t last. It remains his best film, a triangulation of Midwestern square-ness, prickly acid comedy with the twinge of a thousand triangles, and a bulbous, lovingly rounded essence of personal fulfillment through physical expression. Landis’ career quickly devolved into backgrounds for actors to pleasure themselves on camera while Landis waited in the wings, cowering in fear of being hit by the spillover. For reference, the one time Landis was the phallic thruster was the circle jerk Into the Night, an excuse for all his friends to come to town and cameo to the detriment of the film around them (although Landis was impossibly embroiled in the fallout of his Twilight Zone film segment imbroglio at the time, so maybe he needed the friendship).
Most of Landis’ other films, essentially, are too manically over-churned for their own good, without a directorially kaleidoscopic aesthetic to earn that mania. In comparison, The Blues Brothers retains a starry, wild-eyed spunk for that spasmodic, everything-goes communal effervescence, but it’s also diamond-cut on a slab of astringent post-New Hollywood strife. It’s like a cartoon ball of electrons let loose in a grisly, frail, frigid world, a mongoose clawing around for meaning in a cage. So many ‘80s blockbusters are bloated in a cynical and streamlined way; The Blues Brothers is no less bloated, but it tasks bloat with saving our souls. It intakes such exuberance swiveling, heckling, and erring to the sidelines, and it’s so sincere about its self-intoxication, that it feels like a circle-jerk, sure, but one you’re actually apart of, rather than waiting around on the sidelines.
Score: 9/10 (although my heart says 10/10).