Joliet Jake (John Belushi) is released from prison after a three year sentence and is met at the prison gates by his brother Elwood (Dan Aykroyd). They then visit the orphanage where they grew up, only to be told by the nun who runs the place that she needs $5000 or it will be closed down. The Blues Brothers, as they are known, decide to redeem themselves by getting their old band back together to raise the cash. It's not as simple as that sounds, however...
When The Blues Brothers was released, it wasn't successful at all, and was criticised for its wastefulness in the amount of money it cost, and the amount of destruction on display. Nowadays, nobody would bat an eyelid at all those expensive set pieces where cars are destroyed as it set the benchmark for extravagant stunt work, but back then it provided the critics with the excuse to denigrate the whole enterprise. Scripted by Aykroyd and the director John Landis, it's not all crash bang wallop, it's a sincere tribute to soul and blues musicians, too, the action jumping into life every time someone starts singing or starts driving.
The Blues Brothers began life as an act on Saturday Night Live, where Aykroyd and Belushi would cover old soul records, dressed in black suits, black hats, white shirts and black ties, as an apéritif for the audience to enjoy before the sketches started. In many ways this film version, which opens out that act, is wish fulfilment for the two comedians - they get to play soul singers who receive rapturous applause, and share a film with some of the greats, like James Brown (leading a gospel choir into hysteria), Aretha Franklin (bursting out into Think in her diner) and Ray Charles (a sharpshooter who gets the whole neighbourhood dancing in the street outside his music shop), who also perform in numbers that don't fit in entirely smoothly, yet that was the curious, everything but the kitchen sink tone to the movie.
But they couldn't simply have non stop music, oh no, they had to pad it out with comedy too - the comedy of smashing things up, the apex of the nineteen-seventies trend for destruction as spectacle (tellingly, Aykroyd and Belushi had just been in another expensive flop, Steven Spielberg's 1941). Early on, the brothers escape a police car by driving around a shopping mall, scattering shoppers and merchandise as they go. This would be the climax to most comedies, but for this film, it's just the beginning. The actual climax has the Bluesmobile (a converted police car itself) chased by a huge amount of cops through Chicago, resulting in numerous crashes and one incredible stunt where an irate neo-Nazi (Henry Gibson) drives off an uncompleted road only to sail hundreds of feet up in the air. Carrie Fisher also appears with rocket launchers and military grade weaponry, blowing up an entire building at one point. Al this is presented with a straight face, almost as if to say, well, how else are people supposed to behave in a movie?
All well and good, but there's a vacuum at the heart of the movie - the Blues Brothers themselves. They don't have many funny lines, or any strong personality, and neither are they particularly terrific at singing, though those scenes where the music starts represent the only times where they display any enthusiasm. They are only cool by association; association with the soul greats, and participation in the stunts. I could imagine the Palace Hotel Ballroom being filled by Aretha, or Cab Calloway, as we see him with the audience in the palm of his hand during his "Minnie the Moocher" number, but not Jake and Elwood (and they leave after two songs!). Aykroyd and Belushi, yeah, but not Jake and Elwood. As spectacle, and for the cast and music, The Blues Brothers is fine entertainment, but it has a hollow sound and its deadpan quality makes for a curious experience if you start to think about it. The funniest sequence remains the encounter with the Good Ol' Boys, led by Charles Napier, but for sheer chutzpah at how over the top one film can get, The Blues Brothers is hard to top, even if you can practically catch their cocaine buzz from watching it. A remake/sequel appeared in 1998.