There’s a saying that every rock star wants to become an actor, and every actor wants to become a rock star. Most of the time, the transition is a bad idea, but once in a while, a supremely talented exception proves the rule. And of these, few stand taller than John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, a.k.a. Jake and Elwood Blues, two deadpan troublemakers in dark suits, fedoras and sunglasses, who say little, respect no man’s law, and play some righteous rhythm & blues. Debuting on Saturday Night Live as an outgrowth of Aykroyd and Belushi’s own love for R&B, a one-time performance turned into a passion project turned into an album turned into an over-the-top comedy that slammed the door on the post-Watergate, pre-Reagan era with enough drug-fueled enthusiasm to destroy a few dozen cop cars. Behold: The Blues Brothers.
The story takes place around Chicago, as Elwood picks up his brother Jake from a three-year stint in the klink and drops some bad news on him: the tax man is going to foreclose on the orphanage where they grew up if Sister Mary Stigmata (“the Penguin”) doesn’t raise $5,000 in just under two weeks. Obliged to help out, the Blues Brothers receive a holy vision during a church service and decide to reunite their old band and play a charity concert to raise the dough. Seems simple enough, but the problem is that our heroes are on the top of the hit lists of the National Guard, the Chicago SWAT team, various other state and local police departments, a local unit of Illinois Nazis, a country & western band called The Good Ol’ Boys, and a mystery woman who has a habit of showing up at critical times so she can try to kill Jake with various kinds of military ordnance. Never mind that these guys have no money, their various bandmates don’t particularly want to get back together, and they don’t have a lot of favors to call in. But they’re on a mission from God, as they like to remind people, and so they lead cops on car chases through shopping malls, wheedle some instruments off of Ray Charles, nearly get themselves killed playing in a honkytonk, and somehow manage to pack a full house to give the performance of their lifetimes. All this, just in time to escape out the back, lead their various enemies on one more epic car chase, get to the county clerk’s office before it closes, save the orphanage, and promptly land themselves and their entire band back in jail. Mission accomplished.
There are so many elements to this movie, it’s hard to unpack them all. There is the kind of dense, deadpan character comedy that is Belushi and Aykroyd at the height of their powers, inhabiting two characters so fully that you kind of wonder if maybe Belushi and Aykroyd are really Jake and Elwood’s secret identities. And then there is the gonzo madcap physical comedy throughout; like when Jake and Elwood survive a flamethrower attack in a flying phone booth. And that’s got nothing—absolutely nothing—on the completely berserk car chases throughout, each one of which would have been reserved for the climax of a lesser movie. But here, they’re just opening acts for a final scene that for years held the world’s record for the most cars destroyed on screen. The production had a full-time garage on set to keep the 60+ clunkers bought for the movie running, and when at one point when we see that the Bluesmobile is hauling ass at a buck-eighteen under the Chicago L, that’s not trickery; they were really going that fast. Why? If you had any idea how much drugs were consumed while making this movie, you’d have your answer.
But the richest part is the music, which is a legitimate labor of love here. There are a bunch of numbers featuring R&B and soul legends like Ray Charles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker and Cab Calloway, many of whom enjoyed a career renaissance due to some crazy movie about a couple of weird white boys who just loved good music. The car chases and comedy might be what draws you into the Blues Brothers, but the music is what seeps into your bones and changes you for life. This movie is a crash course in a kind of music that was fast disappearing and deserved preserving. If Jake and Elwood were doing the Lord’s work trying to save the Penguin’s orphanage, then John and Dan were doing it by reminding us to shake our tail feathers in sweet home Chicago. Do you see the light? I said, do you see the light?
Like so many great movies, there is no single moment of truth here, just a target-rich environment of them. But one that really sticks out and explains the madcap logic that somehow holds together this improbable epic of grifters, music and vehicular mayhem is a scene at the end, when Jake and Elwood escape the theatre to go pay off the tax bill, and they are caught dead to rights by the mystery woman—Jake’s jilted ex-fiancée. At last, she has Jake right where she wants him and somehow he talks his way out of it by throwing out every excuse he can think of for leaving his lady at the altar, each more impossible than the last. And somehow, it works well enough for him to kiss her and take off running. If that isn’t proof that these guys are divinely ordained to follow their rounds, then nothing is. And moments later, when they jump in their car for their final, fateful, frantic race to the finish, they prove it yet again in one of the most quotable lines of movie dialogue ever: that there’s 106 miles to Chicago, they’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and they’re wearing sunglasses.