40 Years Ago: The Blues Brothers

When people ask the inevitable question “When were the times when you have laughed hardest in the cinema?”, the two examples that spring to mind, it may surprise you to learn, are NOT comedies from the classic studio era (although several Laurel and Hardy shorts I can think of come near the top). Rather, I laughed memorably hard during contemporary movies during my teenage years (a fact I try to remember, though not always successfully, when I’m ready to scorn what kids laugh at today). One of those occasions was the scene in All of Me (1984), where the spirit of Lily Tomlin takes over one half of Steve Martin’s body. I think that may be the best physical comedy Steve Martin has ever done, and that’s a high bar. The other moment I always think of was created by director John Landis in The Blues Brothers (1980) where, through a combination of improbable circumstances a car containing Illinois Nazis is hurled impossibly high into the air. I don’t know why it struck me so funny. I think because it went the extra mile to be preposterous — the car was literally hanging there in the sky a thousand feet in the air before falling, like in a cartoon.

The Blues Brothers is 40 years old now — quite a bit older than the principal artists were when they made it. I was 14 when it came out: the target audience and already a fan of the Blues Brothers and their alter egos John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd from their work on Saturday Night Live, and their surprise hit debut record Briefcase Full of Blues (1978). For some perspective, however: though I really, really loved them, I had never considered them a real band, despite the impressive line-up of musicians, veterans of Booker T & the MGs, Blood Sweat and Tears and so forth. Having first seen them in a comedy context, I thought of the Blues Brothers on a plane with the Coneheads, and the Nerds, and the Wild ‘n’ Crazy Guys. It wasn’t just an act, it was actors portraying an act, frankly not worlds away from the evolution of The Monkees from a fictional TV sitcom band into a group that played concert venues. So laughter was always a component of my listening to them. It’s John Belushi, for God’s sakes! I remember I was listening to one of their records, and my mom was enjoying it, JUST enjoying it, and I was like “No, no, it’s satire!” because that was how I understood it. But satire was too strong a word. What it was, was irony. It’s the somewhat unhealthy, fundamentally dishonest stance that allows us to have our cake and eat it, too. It is the strategy of mimicry that maintains a distance, allowing you to own whatever way the audience takes it. If they like it, it’s fine, if they laugh at it, it’s fine. To his credit, it’s always been more than that to Aykroyd, I think. As we have learned over the years, there is nothing feigned about his eccentricity. So he has spent decades trying to make a real thing out of it, even after the death of his co-star. But while he may have started from a real place, the act didn’t, and you can’t make a real face out of a mask. Devo also attempted to make a similar journey — in the mid ’80s they tried to go from being a robotic parody of a band to being a real pop synth group. But that’s not what people wanted, from them, at any rate.

Aykroyd had always loved the music. He had grown up attending blues shows at an Ottawa club, seeing performances by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Spann, etc. He learned to play a fair blues harmonica. But Belushi had been introduced to the blues about two minutes before they launched the act. He was enthusiastic about it, but as a new project. They debuted it on SNL in one of the Killer Bee sketches in early 1976, performing “I’m a King Bee”. Then they began performing regularly at Aykroyd’s private after-hours club. And then they put together a proper stage act featuring top session musicians and began to perform in real rooms. I heard a little about this process through the grapevine. My brother played drums in a blues trio called Duke Robillard and the Pleasure Kings in the mid ’80s. Robillard had been one of the founders of seminal blues revival band Roomful of Blues, an act with a sound not unlike the one the Blues Brothers eventually built. At around the time he left Roomful, Duke had apparently been tried as guitarist with the Blues Brothers Band but was fired or left because he couldn’t hold his tongue about the inauthenticity of the thing. But I think, fake as it was, it redounded to the benefit of Robillard ultimately anyway. There was a boom of interest in the blues in the ’80s, with acts like Stevie Ray Vaughn, George Thorogood and the Fabulous Thunderbirds enjoying great popular success (Robillard later joined the Thunderbirds). I’m not sure if these acts would have crossed over to the mainstream without the Blues Brothers success, contrived as it was.

The whole thing was about showmanship, and as my readers know, I hardly disapprove of that! Dressed in matching black suits, ties, hats, and sunglasses (and white socks), unsmiling, they would enter the stage to the tune of Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose”, with Belushi turning cartwheels and Aykroyd running in place. Aykroyd would be handcuffed to a briefcase, which they would unlock. From inside, Aykroyd would produce a harmonica, which he would flourish like he had just pulled a rabbit out of a hat. And they would do this crazy legged dance, and perform their numbers. Neither could sing. Belushi took the leads in a weak husky shout without nuance. Aykroyd occasional sang a harmony in a bass register, played blues harp, and performed on comical things like “Rubber Bisquit”. They looked (and look) like a parody of cool, or a comment on cool. No one is nerdier than Aykroyd or a bigger slob than Belushi. To me comedy is the foundation, at least to all appearances (after all, they were the opening act for Steve Martin), and you can see where that would create a tension with the idea of a genuine homage to black music. Still…I played the hell out of all three of their LPS, Briefcase Full of Blues (1978), Made in America (1980), and the 1980 soundtrack to their eponymous film. Because it had those tunes on it.

Anyway, Briefcase Full of Blues, a gag or not, became the #1 record in the country. Then Belushi was the star of the smash hit Animal House, directed by John Landis, and then both Belushi and Aykroyd were in Steven Spielberg’s 1941 (1979), which was less of a hit but felt like a big deal at the time. So there was the wherewithal to make a Blues Brothers film, with Landis at the helm. It was one of the most expensive comedies ever produced, with several big name stars, hundreds of extras, the largest number of wrecked cars on a film to date (103), and cost overruns caused by Aykroyd’s tardiness in writing the 324 page script, and Belushi’s penchant for partying. I will say this for it: it all shows up on screen. The plot is a Mickey and Judy thing: brothers Elwood and Joliet Jake need to raise dough to save the Chicago orphanage where they grew up. To do so, they get the band back together (I’m not sure, but I think that’s where that phrase comes from.). Along the way, they run afoul of cops, Nazis, rednecks, and Belushi’s ex, a jilted terrorist played by Carrie Fisher, who was Aykroyd’s fiance at the time. At the climax they play a huge sold out concert, make a ton of dough and rush it to the tax assessors in their Bluesmobile (a converted cop car), pursued by all of the above, plus state troopers and the national guard, in a car chase worthy of the Keystone Kops. Along the way there are performances by Ray Charles, Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and John Lee Hooker, as well as the Blues Brothers themselves, and a cast that includes Henry Gibson, John Candy, Kathleen Freeman, a pre-Peewee Herman Paul Rubens, Twiggy, Steve Lawrence, Frank Oz, Charles Napier, and Steven Spielberg (returning the favor for Landis’s cameo in 1941).

Landis and Aykroyd both went on to many future successes, but for Belushi, The Blues Brothers was the high point. Like the image of the car we opened with, he was then at his apogee, hanging in the sky, poised to crash to earth. He did two more, much smaller films, Continental Divide and Neighbors, both released in 1981. He died of his speedball overdose in early 1982. There have been countless Blues Brothers reunion projects since then, with people like his brother James Belushi or the similarly tubby John Goodman subbing for him. But I haven’t been able to bring myself to look or listen. The original incarnation may have been both real and fake. But I fear that the revived versions may be TOO real and TOO fake.

For more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.