Saturday, January 21, 2012

THE BLUES BROTHERS: Blu-ray (Universal 1980) Universal Home Video

A mindless claptrap loosely structured to 'celebrate' the city of Chicago and several of the biggest R&B acts of their generation, John Landis' The Blues Brothers (1980) attempts to straddle the chasm between the traditional light-hearted Hollywood musical/and kick in the crotch comedy for which the 1970s were deplorably famous, but winds up strapping a pipe bomb to just about everything instead. The film is the brainchild of Saturday Night Live alumni Dan Akroyd and John Belushi; the two having played the brothers Blue on television in several popular skits. Envisioning a more durable and lengthy piece of entertainment for himself and Belushi to co-star, Akroyd wrote a 324 page screenplay (his first, and nearly 3 times as long as a normal screenplay ought to be) before having the manuscript bound to resemble a copy of the telephone book and submitting it to Landis for consideration. Evidently, Landis saw something he liked, because he quickly set about pruning Akroyd's concept into a manageable length.
The premise for all the musical numbers and rampant destruction that follows is threadbare at best. Jake Blues (John Belushi) is paroled after serving three years in prison for armed robbery. His brother Elwood (Dan Akroyd) immediately takes him for a little tete a tete with 'the penguin': Sister Mary Stigmata (Kathleen Freeman) who is disappointed by the way 'her boys' have turned out. But now the orphanage where Elwood and Jake grew up is in very real danger of being taken over by the city for failing to pay its taxes. (Aside: religious properties are exempt from taxation. However, at the time the script was being developed Illinois was considering a bill that would have revoked that exemption).
Jake offers to knock over a liquor store to get Sister Mary the $5,000 she needs to save the orphanage. But Elwood reasons a more prudent way to raise money. He and Jake will reunite with their band and give a benefit concert. To bolster their confidence the orphanage's custodian, Curtis (Cab Calloway) tells the boys to visit an Evangelical church run by Rev. Cleophus James (James Brown). The boys attend and Jake is divinely inspired by the word of God. All, however, does not go according to plan. Elwood is pulled over by two state troopers (Steven Williams and Armand Cerami) for running a red light. Discovering that Elwood's license has expired the police make chase. Elwood drives his car through the Dixie Square Mall in a 'Smokey and the Bandit' styled chase that ends with the total annihilation of virtually every store front in the place.
(Aside: the Dixie Square was an abandoned property set for demolition at the time Landis and his crew did their own wrecking of its interiors. However, after the filmed carnage was complete the state of Illinois attempted to sue Universal for the cost of damages, claiming they had plans to reopen the mall but could no longer consider it viable or safe.) Elwood takes Jake back to his 'men's club' - a flophouse. But the next day the entire establishment is nuked by 'a mysterious woman' (Carrie Fisher). Elwood and Jake survive the building's collapse and make their way to Ray's Music Express, an emporium presided over by none other than Ray Charles. They acquire new instruments on credit and hurry off to collect the remaining members of their band (Murphy Hall, Willie Dunne, Matt Murphy and Tom Malone).
Matt's ol' lady, Mrs. Murphy (Aretha Franklin) attempts to discourage her hubby's participation in the band's reunion by belting out a rendition of 'Think', but to no avail. Elwood and Jake interrupt a Neo Nazi rally, driving their car into the crowd and forcing the Nazis to jump into the river, thus incurring the wrath of the Head Nazi (Henry Gibson) who vows revenge. Next, Elwood, Jake and the boys make their way to Bob's Country Bunker: a remote western bar where they crash a Good Ol' Boy's gig. Unfortunately, they drink more than they earn and the bar owner (Jeff Morris) demands payment. The band flees into the night, making their way to the Palace Hotel ballroom. Elwood and Jake rally their friends to promote their appearance and sell out the 5000 seat venue. Their ambitious promotion works, but it also alerts the police, Bob and the Head Nazi to Jake and Elwood's whereabouts.
On route to the Palace, Jake and Elwood run out of gas, forcing the band to go on without them for the first act. Curtis performs a retro rendition of Minnie the Moocher and wows the crowd. After a brief flirtation with 'a chic lady' (Twiggy), Jake and Elwood arrive at the Palace. They perform their trademark song that brings the audience to a standing ovation. Unfortunately, their arch nemeses are about to close in. Elwood and Jake escape through a trap door in the stage floor but are confronted by 'the mysterious lady' who turns out to be Jake's estranged wife. She has come there to murder the brothers. But at the last possible moment she allows herself to be very briefly seduced by her ex instead. Elwood and Jake elude their captors and race back to Chicago.
The extended chase sequence that brings them to the County Clerk also brings out the police and the National Guard. Elwood and Jake burst into the Cook County Assessor's office where their money is taken on behalf of the orphanage by a lowly clerk (Steven Spielberg). The orphanage has been saved. Unfortunately, someone will have to atone for all the damages incurred throughout the state. Jake, Elwood and the band are carted off to prison - presumably for an indefinite stay. The film concludes with the band performing 'Jailhouse Rock' to the rest of the inmates.
The Blues Brothers could be considered high camp with cameos a la the likes of Michael Todd if only the resulting narrative weren't so fraught with structural inconsistencies that render the movie an episodic mishmash at best. The premise - raising money to save an orphanage - is so threadbare it's practically nonexistent after the initial scenes are played out. What follows is a grossly over-inflated and overproduced series of clich├ęs – some grossly overwrought in very poor taste. It is rumored that 103 cars were totaled during the lengthy chase sequences that open and close the film; to say nothing of the many properties either damaged or completely destroyed along the way.
I must be getting old, but this sort of thoughtless twaddle doesn't appeal to me anymore. I'm not entirely certain that it ever did. The musical acts are engaging, I suppose, but their choreography is more frenetic than fantastic. George Folsey Jr.'s slapdash editing simply fades to black or cuts away to another angle of action already covered. He seems incapable of providing a dramatic visual link or transition between scenes. In the end, The Blues Brothers isn't so much a tongue-in-cheek 'look who's here' cavalcade of stars - musical and otherwise - as it proves an exhaustive roller coaster ride that runs out of thrills and outstays its welcome long before the final fade out.
Universal Home Video has chosen to include The Blues Brothers as part of their 100 year celebration. This disc is just a repackaged version of the Blu-ray already available for more than a year. So if you already own it, don't buy it again. We get two versions of the film; the theatrical cut and the 'extended director's cut'. The latter doesn't really add anything to your viewing experience so much as it simply lengthens a few of the musical sequences with different angles of the action already covered in the theatrical cut. The excised portions reinserted into the film have a different color palette than the rest of the film and appear - at least to my eye - slightly more waxen and void of film grain than the rest of the movie.
Overall color fidelity is solid (except during the aforementioned inserts). Flesh tones are quite natural. Contrast levels are strong. Blacks are deep. Whites are clean. Age related artefacts are not an issue. A hint of edge enhancement crops up but nothing that will distract. The visuals are in fine shape and will surely not disappoint. The DTS audio is unexpectedly aggressive, particularly during the musical sequences. Heavy on the bass and really robust in its clarity and separation. Extras include a retro hour long 'making of' documentary and two brief featurettes: one on transposing the music, the other on remembering John Belushi.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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