In Focus: The Blues Brothers (1980)

By Helen Cox

Illustration by Amy McKay

I’ve always felt that the world is divided into two sorts of people: people who found watching The Blues Brothers a life-altering experience and those who didn’t. I am certainly in the former, and undoubtedly smaller, category but the latter category is fronted by Barry Norman so I’m happy to be where I am.

The Blues Brothers is a 1980 comedy set in Illinois. Our protagonists, Elwood (played by Dan Ackroyd) and Jake “Joliet Jake” Blues (played by John Belushi), are two black suited ne’er-do-wells on a mission to stop the Catholic orphanage they grew up in from being closed down. In their plight to save the orphanage Elwood and Jake manage to incur the wrath of the cops, the owner of a country and western club, the band who were supposed to perform there but couldn’t because the Blues Brothers stole their slot and, perhaps most notably, a troop of Illinois Nazi’s. They’ve also done something to infuriate Carrie Fisher who is hunting them down with a bazooka and flame-thrower close at hand.

I suppose that to most people the above synopsis might sound utterly ridiculous but I’ve left out a fairly crucial detail. Throughout their quest The Blues Brothers keep running into some of the most iconic musicians and singers of all time including Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles and James Brown. All of them sing; none of them disappoint with their performance and watching them almost feels like historical documentation of talent that once was.

I am, unavoidably, a little bit biased with my love for The Blues Brothers: it was a film I grew up with. My dad regularly screened it to us on a Saturday night and I can’t help but feel that watching it as such a young age had a profound effect on the kind of sense of humour I developed. If you laugh at a rude man in a restaurant asking to buy all the women, or one Illinois Nazi swearing eternal love to another Illinois Nazi as they fall to their death or simply at the sight of John Belushi cracking a whip along to the rawhide theme tune, are you sane? More to the point If being sane means not being allowed to laugh at these things are you really that interested in being so? In addition to the tone of the film appealing to my undeniable dark side I also grew up with the music. I was fortunate enough to live in a household with a killer record collection, where not a day passed without the rich tones of Ben E King or the husky hues of Dusty Springfield, or other such Atlantic greats, blasting out over the speakers.

You don’t have to have had my upbringing, however, to appreciate how truly unique The Blues Brothers is as a film. It makes the most of the gritty Illinois back-drop emphasising the industrial, unfeeling nature of Detroit whilst harking back to its musical legacy. It is turgid with quick quips between Ackroyd and Belushi and Ackroyd and Belushi and the rest of the world they have created. The soundtrack is amazing and it’s peppered with a whole host of beautiful little moments like when Elwood seduces Twiggy or when John Candy orders “three Orange Whips” at the Blues Brothers’ gig when he should be hauling their asses into the back of a cop car or…well the list does go on. If I have yet to give you any reason to watch The Blues Brothers; if you remain unconvinced then consider this: this film features the late John Belushi doing cartwheels. I don’t know if you’ve seen John Belushi doing cartwheels but I assure you it is a sight to behold. If by some remote chance I end up going to a good place when I die I like to think that I’ll get to spend an eternity just watching John Belushi doing cartwheels. It’s a bit like watching John McClane jump off that skyscraper attached only to a fire hose for the first time: it’s a spectacle guaranteed to bring a smile to your face and it’s a sight you’ll never forget.

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