Let’s talk about Saturday Night Live characters that took on a life of their own. Jake and Elwood Blues (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) started as a Saturday Night Live (SNL) sketch that aired in January of 1976, and allowed them to return as musical guests twice in 1978.
Their debut album, Briefcase Full of Blues, was released the same year and reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart. Not even two full years later did they find themselves in their first feature film that was to become a cult classic known for its dry humour and, most importantly, killer music.
Since the film’s release in 1980 many other SNL sketches have been made into films. The Coneheads, Wayne’s World, and most recently MacGruber have all been received well, but none of them have been able to hold a candle to the original sketch-turned-movie. In addition to co-writing the script with Dan Aykroyd, John Landis took on the role of director, already familiar with the style of film expected. He directed 1978’s Animal House, another cult classic that had also starred Belushi.
The Blues Brothers follows Jake and Elwood Blues as they struggle to raise enough money to keep the orphanage where they were raised open. They become divinely inspired to get their band back together and begin the hunt to find each member. After much convincing, they grab new instruments and try to get gigs. This, of course, doesn’t go smoothly. While trying to follow through with their “mission from God” they manage to piss off a bar owner, state troopers, a Nazi group, and an angry country band, all of whom give chase and are part of the fabulous climatic scene at the end. This excitement is aided by the film’s star appearances including Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, John Candy, Cab Calloway, Steven Spielberg, Carrie Fisher, James Brown, Chaka Khan, and Twiggy.
There are a million little things that make this movie unforgettable. The dynamic chemistry between Belushi and Aykroyd is one of them. They were very close as actors on SNL, and their true friendship is transferred seamlessly onto the big screen. It’s easy to see how they feed off each other’s energy, each bringing their own humour and style to the roles that mesh together perfectly. From their lanky and flailing dance moves (I’m looking at you Aykroyd) to their ability to remain stone-faced at each others’ little idiosyncrasies, it rarely seems like acting. Their complete disregard for social normality adds to their dry humour, and the film’s fantastical hyperbole elements just leave you cracking up. The band in the film is SNL’s own who played with the Blues Brothers in all of their sketches. There are no new members to be artificially integrated into the little family that’s been created. Each band member holds his own, and bring the film together with their music.
Ah, the music. It’s obviously the best part and the very essence of the film. Whether Aretha is belting out a song in her diner, Ray is rocking out on his 30music store piano, or the brothers are singing their own tunes, it’s the glue that holds the movie together. Music is how the characters relate to each other, how they are inspired, and how they live. It’s how the film flows from scene to scene, and how the characters interact with each other. Music is the universal language of the film. The upbeat tunes that feature horns and harmonicas aren’t heard enough in films anymore. It makes you appreciate an age where not every singer had synthesized instruments or vocals. The actors bring their own dynamic to the songs in their performances, making you want to jump up and dance. Or at the very least, learn the words so you can sing along from your couch every time you watch the movie.
The Blues Brothers experienced massive success that was brought down by Belushi’s sudden death in 1982. Aykroyd, however, has taken that success and created a world devoted to the characters. He has several House of Blues venues across America, wrote and started in 1998’s Blues Brothers 2000, and continues to perform as Elwood Blues, with the help of actors Jim Belushi (John’s brother) and John Goodman. The film managed to impossibly combine sarcastic humour, true chemistry between actors, ridiculous plot twists, and authentic and fun music. It brought simple TV characters to life and gave a generation a new appreciation for Blues music. Even though Jake is no longer with us, his band is still going strong and his brother is keeping the family name alive.
The Blues Brothers review is part of our ongoing film review series: Lust for Life: The Music of Film, where Step On magazine writers take a look at all the films about music and made of great music that are the soundtrack of our lives.