Andrew Sarris

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 648

Like so many other contemporary movies, including the anticlimactic The Empire Strikes Back, the overproduced The Blues Brothers could have been better rendered as an animated cartoon. The uncomically surreal car smashes belong in a Roadrunner series, and Belushi and Aykroyd are infinitely more effective in motion than in conversation. As for the great black musical performers—Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, and James Brown—they might just as well be featured in vaudeville shorts for all the dramatic or narrative impact they have. For example, Aretha Franklin literally stops the show with her soulfully feminist rendition of "Think" when her man is tempted to leave the kitchen of their tiny diner for a precarious life on tour with the Blues Brothers. What happens? Her man leaves even more defiantly than before. The song has changed nothing, meant nothing. Even the three girl back-up singers, supportive during the number, end up snickering at the hopeless quandary of the Franklin character.

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I hate to keep bringing up the old-fashioned critical criterion of coherence at a time when movie patrons seem to have an even shorter attention span than they used to. Certainly, The Blues Brothers is not as much of a mess structurally as Animal House or Meatballs or The Jerk, to name three broadly anarchic surprise hits. The trouble is that The Blues Brothers makes even less sense than any of its three predecessors.

I do not buy the line of one reviewer that The Blues Brothers is hip-racist in the way that the movie exploits traditional stereotypes of blacks (as opposed to the naive racism of King Vidor's 1929 Hallelulah!). I do believe, however, that there is some conflict between the affectionately enlightened attitude of the Blues Brothers as characters. It is one thing to conceive of Rocky as a Capraesque hero by downplaying the mob connections. But Sylvester Stallone would never have allowed Rocky to hold up a gas station even for the noblest motives as Belushi's Joliet Jake is said to have done for the good of the band. Joliet Jake is introduced to us as a convict being released by a slightly ridiculous prison system. I say "slightly" because Landis has staged many of the scenes as if he were dabbling in an honest-to-goodness film noir. The audience titters expectantly waiting for some Animal House anarchy. Instead, The Bells of St. Mary's motif is introduced laboriously with the meanest nun … in Christendom. From then on, the movie becomes mystical and mythological as the Blues Brothers pursue their holy quest for 5000 honest dollars to save an orphanage from foreclosure. Cab Calloway, the elderly watchman at the orphanage, adds a sympathetic dimension to the mission for God that the nasty nun cannot….

For The Blues Brothers, God serves as an excuse both for a series of bullying skits in which Belushi and Aykroyd can act as hoods, and for their seemingly miraculous invulnerability to the assaults of all the policemen in Illinois, the American Nazi Party, a troupe of country and western singers and a vengeful ex-girl friend abandoned at the altar. During the interminable chases, my frame of reference was not Buster Keaton's Cops but Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad Mad World. Destruction for the sake of destruction, without wit, grace, or humor. Significantly, The Blues Brothers took an R [rating] simply to allow Belushi and Aykroyd to garner easy laughs from the small fry with gratuitously foul language…. The writing of this film is so faint-hearted, however, that one cannot get involved enough to be offended. All the "energy" has gone into the car crashes, and all the talent has gone into the musical numbers. The rest is undeveloped drivel.

Andrew Sarris, "Can't Stop the Blues Brothers" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1980), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXV. No. 27, July 2-8, 1980, p. 33.∗

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