David Denby

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 569

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The Blues Brothers is a monstrous $30 million expansion of a ramshackle old Hollywood musical revue (like The Big Broadcast of 1938)—the kind of movie that used to be made for a few hundred thousand dollars. Those vaudeville musicals, their unrelated musical numbers stitched together with comedy routines, often featured jazz musicians, or black singers and dancers who would never get the chance to star in a movie of their own. Racism was built into the form. Well, things haven't changed all that much in 45 years…. Hectic, exhausting, often gross and stupid, The Blues Brothers nonetheless makes a tiny purchase on immortality when Aretha Franklin opens her mouth to sing.

People who love soul music and blues may have a little trouble accepting Aykroyd and Belushi as great performers in a movie that consigns the authentic greats to backup roles. Ever since the two comics started doing it a few years ago on Saturday Night Live, the Blues Brothers routine has inhabited an uneasy region between parody and put-on….

Belushi and Aykroyd doubtless intended to pay homage to the great black performers who have inspired them, but the homage often comes close to insult and outright ripoff. Some of the performers are treated shabbily. Spotted in front of a soul-food store, the great John Lee Hooker gets a minute or so of screen time. Aretha Franklin, as a hash-house waitress attached to a member of the band, does a tremendous number, "Think," and then she's dropped out of the movie. Aretha Franklin left behind to wait tables! In their own way director John Landis, Belushi, and Aykroyd recolonize the black performers. The great old Cab Calloway, his smile as brilliantly insinuating as ever, sings "Minnie the Moocher" in white tie and tails in front of a huge audience, killing time for the impatient crowd while the boys are being chased by the police. Calloway's smile—the seal of a great entertainer's joy in giving pleasure—shows up Aykroyd and Belushi's sullen "cool" for the sophomoric thing it is. Yet what an insulting context for Calloway's triumph—as a fill-in! From this movie, today's kids might think that Calloway, Franklin, and Ray Charles were important because they led to the emergence of the Blues Brothers. (p. 52)

John Landis makes a movie the way General Westmoreland made war—he piles on the technology and the destruction. It's not enough for cars to chase each other all over Chicago and leap across open drawbridges: they must also demolish a huge shopping mall and skid into each other in monumental pileups. Landis repeats every gag five times without ever achieving a formal style; visually, the movie is cluttered and graceless and cold—the dominant colors are iron gray and blue. And Landis destroys some moments that might have been great if done more simply. When James Brown, as a singing preacher, begins to let loose, and fantastic black dancers leap ecstatically across the church aisle, Landis cuts back and forth from one camera angle to another in time to the music. Once again, a hot-shot director has turned a potentially great dance number into an editing-table tour de force, ruining our pleasure. The Blues Brothers leaves us feeling dazed, grateful, and frustrated all at once. (pp. 52-3)

David Denby, "Two-Faced Blues," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1980 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 13, No. 26, June 30, 1980, pp. 52-4.∗


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