'The Blues Brothers' at 35: Mission From God Accomplished

This Friday will mark 35 years since the theatrical release of The Blues Brothers, the thinly plotted, budget-busting action comedy co-starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd that today can be seen as a sort of Trojan horse in reverse. No critics’ favorite upon its release, the film cost in the neighborhood of $30 million, an astounding amount of money to spend on a movie in the late ‘70s. It was also months behind schedule due to Belushi’s rampant drug use during filming and Aykroyd’s 300-plus-page first draft of a script, while the final third is essentially one long car chase where the number of ruined vehicles tops 100 — a world record at the time.

But along the way, The Blues Brothers not only helped revive the careers of some of the 20th century’s greatest recording artists, but introduced some of the greatest songs in blues, R&B and soul history to millions of young people for the first time, both in its improbably successful theatrical run (the film eventually took in about $115 million at the worldwide box office) and especially in its lengthy afterlife on television and home video. In the process, Jake and Elwood’s “mission from God” may have started as a Saturday Night Live sketch — where, novelties like “Rubber Biscuit" aside, they always played it totally straight — but quickly became its own kind of evangelical crusade that largely succeeded in rescuing one of America’s greatest musical traditions from obscurity and irrelevance.

To get an idea of what a rich musical document The Blues Brothers is, a few of the songs not performed by the Blues Brothers Band in the movie are Sam & Dave’s “Soothe Me” and “Hold On, I’m Comin’”; Elmore James’ “Shake Your Moneymaker”; John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillun”; and Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’.” Songs Jake, Elwood and their cohorts do perform include Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” the Spencer Davis’ Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’,” and Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.” And who can forget how they kill “Stand By Your Man” and the theme from Rawhide at Bob’s Country Bunker?

Belushi and Aykroyd, whose Blues Brothers album Briefcase Full of Blues topped the Billboard 200 in January 1979 on its way to double-platinum status, had the deep pockets to pick and choose their backing musicians, as well as the good taste to pick the very best: Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn from the Stax Records house band; ex-Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Matt “Guitar” Murphy; drummer Willie Hall (the Bar-Kays); and saxophonist “Blue Lou” Marini (Blood, Sweat & Tears; Frank Zappa). Longtime David Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer helped Belushi and Aykroyd create the Blues Brothers on SNL, but didn’t appear in the film due to a scheduling conflict. Even the players backing John Lee Hooker in his cameo are longtime Chicago session pros, many of whom worked with the great Muddy Waters: Big Walter Horton, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Calvin “Fuzz” Jones and pianist “Pinetop” Perkins, the latter of whom would become a regular at Antone’s in Austin during his later years.
Director John Landis’ followup to landmark 1978 frat comedy Animal House, The Blues Brothers confounded many traditional film critics at the time. The New York Times’ Janet Maslin didn’t quite see the forest for the trees in her review:

Though the story leads Jake and Elwood Blues of Chicago to a number of wonderful soul or blues performers — among them Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Ray Charles and Cab Calloway — it uses the musicians in cameo roles and devotes itself otherwise to a conventional, poorly rendered plot. The whole movie supposedly hinges on Jake and Elwood Blues's efforts to raise money to pay taxes on a church orphanage. Had the orphanage been tax exempt, there would be no story at all.

The Hollywood establishment didn’t think much of the film either, at least not at first. Aghast at its price tag, trade publication of record Variety had this to say:

If Universal had made it 35 years earlier, The Blues Brothers might have been called Abbott & Costello in Soul Town. Level of inspiration is about the same now as then, the humor as basic, the enjoyment as fleeting.

However, one of history’s most famous Chicagoans, the late Roger Ebert, was a little more forgiving in his own review:

There can rarely have been a movie that made so free with its locations as this one. There are incredible, sensational chase sequences under the elevated train tracks, on overpasses, in subway tunnels under the Loop, and literally through Daley Center. One crash in particular, a pileup involving maybe a dozen police cars, has to be seen to be believed: I've never seen stunt coordination like this before.
Today I suspect even Aykroyd or Belushi would admit that the movie was never about the jokes or even the car chases; it was about the chance to put James Brown, Aretha Franklin and the rest of their musical heroes in a movie where millions of Saturday Night Live fans might get a glimpse of what awesome performers these people still were. Writing for The Onion’s AV Club in 2012, Steven Hyden notes that by 1980 Franklin was an unsigned artist and the album where “Think” originally appeared, 1968’s Aretha Now, was out of print. But seeing her scene in the diner inspired Arista Records mogul Clive Davis to give her a record deal; after a couple of warmup albums, her real comeback record, 1982’s Jump To It, topped Billboard’s R&B albums chart. Franklin would go on to have a pair of massive pop hits with “Freeway of Love” and George Michael duet "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)," marking The Blues Brothers as, Hyden writes, the start of “a successful decade that shored up her legacy once and for all.”

I remember renting The Blues Brothers on VHS long before truly understanding the significance of who exactly Ray Charles, James Brown, John Lee Hooker or Aretha Franklin even were. But their respective performances — set, respectively, in a music store, church, crowded street market and soul-food diner, where Franklin’s “Think” leads even Maslin to admit it’s “quite a song, and she gives quite a rendition” — made a lasting impression, on myself and a lot of other kids. Not terribly long after that, I started watching the original Blues Brothers sketches on Saturday Night Live reruns; a few years after that it was a short path from buying Briefcase Full of Blues in college to albums by Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave. And then many, many more.

“The Blues Brothers are an easy target, but the act’s value as a gateway for music that, in the late ’70s, had largely disappeared from pop culture with no guarantee of ever coming back can’t be denied,” Hyland wrote in that AV Club article. “Even years later, the Blues Brothers were introducing kids to the greatness of vintage soul and R&B.”

Bingo. The Blues Brothers will be on IFC this Friday at 6 p.m. if you’ve never seen it, and twice again next week.
According to IMDB…
** This was Ray Charles’ first appearance in a feature film.
** Joe Walsh appears in the film’s final musical number, “Jailhouse Rock,” as the first prisoner to jump up on a table and dance.
** So does Chaka Khan, as the featured soloist in James Brown’s gospel choir.
** Dan Aykroyd’s brother-in-law owns the last remaining Bluesmobile, one of 12 modified 1974 Dodge Monaco sedans.
** Unlike Aretha Franklin’s, John Lee Hooker’s performance was recorded live at Chicago's Maxwell Street Market, a historic open-air bazaar dating back to the early 1900s.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray