Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Blues Brothers (1980)

Dir. John Landis
Starring: John Belushi, Dan Ayckroyd, Cab Calloway, James Brown

“We’re getting the band back together. We’re on a mission from God.”
 (*cue the Peter Gunn Theme*)

It is quite a long time since I watched The Blues Brothers. I had remembered the classic rhythm and blues soundtrack, with cameos from several very noteworthy guest stars, but I had forgotten quite how enjoyably cartoonish its plot was. It is the twin delights of music and OTT carnage that really provided the joy as I rewatched it at home.

The film sees Jake Blues (John Belushi) released from Joliet Prison after serving three years for the armed robbery of a gas station. Picked up by his blood brother Elwood (Dan Ayckroyd) they go back to the St Helen of the Blessed Shroud Orphanage where they both grew up. There they are informed that it owes $5,000 in property taxes; unless it can find that money in eleven days the orphanage will close down. Directed by the orphanage’s janitor Curtis (a surprisingly professional turn from old timer Cab Calloway) they seek advice at a nearby gospel church. Whilst there Jake has an epiphany: God wants them to save the orphanage. To do this they must locate the former members of their blues band and earn enough money from their gigs to pay off its taxes. One by one they find the musicians and convince them to come back together one last time. They hit the road, despite Jake having failed to arrange any concerts. They eventually get the money and have to speed back to Chicago to pay it on to the Cook County Assessor’s Office in the nick of time. “It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark… and we’re wearing sunglasses.” “Hit it.”

Sounds simple? Don’t believe it. There are a whole host of complications in their way: the Highway Patrol, the Illinois Nazi Party, an enraged country and western band, and a mysterious woman armed with a variety of exceptionally destructive weaponry played by Carrie ‘Princess Leia’ Fisher who turns out to be Jake’s ex-fiancee. By the time the Blues Brothers finally reach Chicago City Hall they have hundreds of police, state troopers, firemen, SWAT teams, National Guardsmen and Military Policemen hot on their tail, rappelling down tower blocks, hovering overhead in helicopters and bringing up Sherman tanks for support.

This gives an idea of the level of ridiculousness the film clings to. As the police dispatcher informs all units, “Use of unnecessary violence in the apprehension of the Blues Brothers HAS been approved”. Actions are never proportionate to the situation the characters find themselves in, and events escalate rapidly. To demonstrate to Jake that the new Bluesmobile is a worthy successor to their old Cadillac Elwood jumps it over an opening drawbridge. A routine traffic violation leads to a car chase through a shopping mall, the Bluesmobile and its police pursuers smashing through shopfronts and stalls. When a Nazi parade is interrupted the Head Nazi (Henry Gibson) vows to kill the Blues; so too do a country and western band who find that their gig booking has been usurped by the Blues. Carrie Fisher appears with machine guns, rocket launchers and explosives. After surviving buildings being blown up around their ears Jake and Elwood merely dust themself down and walk away. When the Nazis chase the Blues up an unfinished freeway bridge the Bluesmobile is seen somersaulting through the sky; the Nazis’ Pinto is seen plunging down and down and down from a preposterous height (it was dropped over a mile from a helicopter). The film held the record for the most vehicles destroyed (103 since you ask) for eighteen years – until Blues Brothers 2000 was released, which wrecked 104. The car chases are spectacular, comparable to anything in Ronin, James Bond or the Bourne Trilogy. Except here it is mostly police cruisers getting well and truly totalled (60 police cars were used, 40 stunt drivers, and 13 different versions of the Bluesmobile).

Dale was all for the revamped 'Extreme Supermarket Sweep'...

Along with the car chases through Chicago’s suburbs, its city centre and along country roads and highways, the other aspect that will live long in the memory is the use of musical interludes. As befits a film about a rhythm and blues band, that band play several songs in their two gigs, the first at Bob’s Country Bunker and the second at the Palace Hotel ballroom. The most famous of these is, of course, the wedding party classic ‘Everybody Needs Somebody to Love’. But even when the band is not playing ‘live’ on screen other numbers that they perform appear on the soundtrack, like ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ and the aforementioned ‘Peter Gunn Theme’. They are not the only musicians on show however. The movie is liberally larded with guest names. These may be non-singing roles (such as Steven Spielberg as a clerk, Frank Oz as a prison guard and Twiggy – yes, her from the Marks & Spencers ads – as a ‘Chic Lady’). Or they may be guest performers. At the evangelical church ‘the hardest working man in showbiz’, Mr James Brown, moonlights as the pastor leading the gospel choir (and its star soloist Chaka Khan) in a high-octane somersaulting rendition of ‘The Old Landmark’. Heading to Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy’s soul food café the Blues pass John Lee Hooker singing ‘Boom Boom’ on the street; inside the café Murphy’s wife, no less a personage than Aretha Franklin, tells him to ‘Think’ before he leaves. Ray Charles leads the band in a rendition of ‘Shake Your Tailfeather’. Cab Calloway later gets a chance to shine too, with a big band version of his most famous number, ‘Minnie the Moocher’. The assembled star power on display is quite awe-inspiring to anyone with a love of soul music.

Think of The Blues Brothers then as a musical. Musicals never have the greatest plots in the world; they just hope to cover over their deficiencies with songs and spectacle. This film certainly has the necessary songs, and with its cartoonish violence and explosive car chases it delivers on the spectacle side of the equation too.

What have I learnt about Illinois?
Not to cross the Highway Patrol. They have little sense of humour and in-car computers (SCMODS, the State County Municipal Offender Data System) which reveal all the details of all previous traffic infringements.

The film is a comedy, and a pretty screw-ball one at that. I think any depictions of Chicago or Illinois that come from the film have to be taken with a significant pinch of salt. As such, any plot points – such as the presence of neo-Nazis, the levying of taxes on church property, or the willingness of the National Guard to deploy tanks into the centre of the city – should not be regarded as a genuine insight into Illinois life.

So really, all we can garner from the film is the incidental colour that gets passed alongside the road. The film opens with an overhead shot of a desolate wasteland punctuated by factory smoke-stacks. We get a glimpse of the ‘El’, the elevated train line, in Chicago, first outside Jake’s flop house and then when the Bluesmobile is pursued at a healthy 115 MPH by the police underneath it. Out in the country I was most struck by the lakes. Not necessarily any ‘Great Lakes’ (such as Lake Michigan, upon which Chicago sits), but smaller wet patches that front both the Country Bunker and the Palace Hotel (‘Lake Wazzapamani’ in the latter case). Illinois seems a wet state. All the roads appeared glistening with rain – though I’m prepared to admit that might just have been to make car skids more exciting!

Can we go there?
The film was shot on location in Chicago and the surrounding area. The access given to the city centre demonstrates that the powers that be clearly have more of a sense of humour than those depicted in the movie.

Elwood picks Jake up outside the (now-closed) Joliet Prison. En route to their Calumet City orphanage they then jump across the Calumet River at the  95th Street Bridge en route to their Calumet City orphanage. James Brown’s ‘Triple Rock Church’ is actually the Pilgrim Baptist Church at 9114 S Burley Avenue. The Blues Brothers are stopped by the traffic patrol in Park Ridge; the ensuing chase comprehensively trashed the Dixie Mall in Harvey (the mall was vacant at the time and has remained vacant ever since; demolition only commenced at the start of 2012).   

In Chicago Elwood's flop house was located at 22 W Van Buren Street in the Loop - well, it was before it was demolished by Carrie Fisher anywayChez Paul really was an exclusive restaurant, and could be found at 660 N Rush Street. It closed in the mid-90s, and the interior scene was filmed on set anyway. The Soul Food Café was a deli in Maxwell Street Market (it is now a parking lot). Ray’s Music Exchange was shot at 300 e 47th Street. The Illinois Nazis end up in the river in Marquette Park; they later try to find the Blues Brothers at Wrigley Field baseball ground at 1060 West Addison

The Palace Hotel is not really on Route 12, Lake Wazzapamani (at 106 miles north of Chicago this would put it in Wisconsin in my reckoning). At the time it was Chicago’s South Shore Country Club, and is now the South Shore Cultural Center. Barack and Michelle Obama held their wedding reception here in 1992. It should be pointed out that the concert scenes inside were shot at the Hollywood Palladium however. The policecar pile-up occurs at the Route 12 overpass in WaucondaIllinois. Car chases through Chicago took place along Lower Wacker Drive and Lake Street to reach the Richard J. Daley Centre and Chicago City Hall (“This is definitely Lower Wacker Drive! If my estimations are correct we should be very close to the Honorable Richard J. Daley Plaza!” “That’s where they got that Picasso.” “Yep.”) The exterior and lobby of the City Hall were used, though the staircases, elevator and Assessor’s office were all created in the studio.

The unfinished freeway bridge from which the Nazis tumble is not in Chicago, or even Illinois however. The scene was shot on Interstate 794 in MilwaukeeWisconsin.

Overall rating: 3/5

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