Guest Review: The Blues Brothers

On October 11, 1975, a group of performers gathered together to foist upon the public what is one of the longest running TV shows in history, Saturday Night Live. It has only a few rivals for that distinction (all of which are either soap operas or news shows). Three months into the show’s first season, on Jan. 17, 1976, during the 10th episode, cast members John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd dressed in bee costumes, touted as “The Killer Bees” and performed a Slim Harpo song “I’m a King Bee”. This was the first incarnation of what would eventually morph into “the Blues Brothers”.

Initially, the genesis stemmed from Aykroyd and Belushi’s affinity for old blues records. It did take a while for the Blues Brothers to emerge. They performed as the bees characters 11 times during the first season. But Belushi notably was quoted as saying he hated the bees. Not long afterwards they reincarnated as the “Blues Brothers”.

Aykroyd and Belushi pulled together a monster list of well known studio musicians from the blues world. These included Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Tom “Bones” Malone, “Blue” Lou Marini, Steve “The Colonel” Cropper, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Willie “Too Big” Hall, Murphy “Murph” Dunne and Alan “Mr. Fabulous” Rubin.

They performed together for a notable concert, released as an album, Briefcase Full of Blues, in 1978, with Belushi and Aykroyd taking on the personas of “Joliet” Jake and Elwood Blues respectively. This was parlayed into a movie contract. Belushi and Aykroyd played the titular Blues brothers while the rest of the band basically appeared as themselves.

The Blues Brothers (1980):

“Joiliet” Jake Blues (John Belushi) is just being released from prison for serving time for committing armed robbery. He is picked up by his brother, Elwood (Dan Aykroyd). To Jake’s consternation, Elwood picks him up in a police car. It seems that during the time that Jake was in prison, his brother had parlayed the original “Bluesmobile” in a trade for a microphone, and had since gotten the used police car at an auction. Jake is upset, but Elwood convinces him that it is a good new “Bluesmobile” after engaging in a car chase with the police which manages to destroy a mall.

Jake and Elwood have to go see “The Penguin” (Kathleen Freeman), their name for the Mother Superior at a Catholic school they attended in their younger days. The Penguin breaks the bad news to the boys that the Catholic Church intends to shut down the school because the property taxes on the building are too high and the church wants to sell the old building outright.

Spurred on by the janitor, Curtis (Cab Calloway), who had spun old blues records for them when they were kids, Jake and Elwood try to devise a way to raise the money to pay the taxes. Ultimately they decide to reunite their old band. The problem is most of them have moved on to real jobs and are unlikely to be willing to join up.

For one thing, Mr. Fabulous is now head maitre’ d at a fancy French restaurant. Matt Murphy has gotten himself hitched and works with his wife (Aretha Franklin) at a soul food restaurant in downtown Chicago. Murphy, Dunne and some of the others have a gig in a hotel bar playing cheesy music for the patrons. Most of them are somewhat initially reluctant to reunite, but Elwood and Jake shame them into reuniting in various ways.

Together, the band loads up the equipment and go out to a gig that Jake has lined up for them. Except Jake really has no gig. His first act is to convince a local redneck bar that they are the scheduled headliners “The Good Old Boys,” a country band. How they manage to pull that off is a sight to see. But when the real band shows up, and the Blues Brothers attempt to skip out on their bar tab with the redneck bar owner, a chase is on.

Over the course of the movie, the Blues Brothers manage to wangle themselves into a serious altercation with a neo-Nazi group, the aforementioned redneck band and bar owner ,and of course the entire police forces of the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois. The whole movie, from a plot aspect, is just one long car chase with lots of cars getting destroyed (all except the Bluesmobile, which manages to escape any damage until the final reel).

But what really makes the movie are the guest stars, a who’s who of blues music. You get Aretha Franklin performing her classic song “Think.” Ray Charles delivers an unforgettable performance of “Shake a Tail Feather”. The band performs “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” and my absolute favorite version of my absolute favorite blues song “Sweet Home Chicago”. And to top it off you get James Brown as a revivalist preacher doing a bang up job of an old gospel song “The Old Landmark”. Plus Cab Calloway sizzles in one scene doing a warmup for the concert the Blues Brothers are scheduled to perform by doing his classic “Minnie the Moocher”.

The plot of The Blues Brothers is good enough for one or two viewings by itself, but the music is sure to keep you coming back time and again.

The same could be said about the sequel Blues Brothers 2000. In this case the plot is pretty much crap, however. But damn, the songs on it are well worth sitting through the rest of the movie. Unfortunately by the time they got around to this sequel, Belushi, Calloway and John Candy from the original movie were dead, but John Goodman does a halfway decent job taking over on the music side. Plus, at the end of the movie you get a battle of the bands with the Blues Brothers on one side and an all-star cast of blues musicians called The Louisiana Gator Boys, with B.B. King leading them on the other side. (Way too many to list here, but among them is Eric Clapton). I highly recommend sitting through the claptrap plot just to see the musical interludes.

  • Butch Knouse

    This isn’t a review, it’s a plot outline.