John Landis directed The Blues Brothers in 1980; it can at once be described as a screw-ball comedy, an action comedy, a music showcase movie, or a musical. But which of these categories best fits this bizarre feature film? For the uninitiated: The Blues Brothers is the story of Jake and Elwood Blues two brothers who grow up in an orphanage run by the Catholic Church. Upon being released from prison Jake played by John Belushi is taken to see Sister Mary Stigmata a.k.a The Penguin, she informs both Jake and Elwood played by Dan Aykroyd that the orphanage will be shut down because they can’t pay a $5000 tax bill, Sister Mary refuses to accept stolen money from the pair and so after a brief visit to church they decide to embark on “a mission from God”, reform their old rhythm and Blues band (who’ve all gone their separate ways since Jake was incarcerated three years earlier) make the five large and save the orphanage. During the reformation of the band and organisation of a one off concert to make the money, the brothers are (for one reason or another) pursued for retribution by two traffic cops, the local Nazi party, a country and western band, and a mystery woman played by Carrie Fisher who has the rather nasty habit of blowing things up. Doesn’t sound like the plot of a musical, but then if I described the plot of Les Miserables or The Sound of Music they wouldn’t sound like musicals either. The plot is patently absurd, and has all the hallmarks of a screwball comedy; does this exclude it from the genre of the musical? Well, no, as obvious as the answer may sound it is worth noting that as far as musicals go The Blues Brother is, if anything, more grounded in reality than for example: Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors from 1986 which featured a nerdy florist feeding people to his man-eating plant. When compared with Little Shop of Horrors, The Blues Brothers appears positively realistic.
There are many definitions of a Musical, a general definition would be: a play or film whose action and dialogue is interspersed with singing and dancing.
By this definition, The Blues Brothers fits the bill quite neatly, it is a film and its action and dialogue is interspersed with both singing and dancing. However when compared to other musicals before and after The Blues Brothers, one particular aspect stands out by its absence – there is no musical dialogue. Most of the songs performed in The Blues Brothers are not exclusive to the film, it’s not like Randal Kleiser’s Grease from 1979, or more recently Rob Marshall’s 2002 film Chicago, both of which contained songs written exclusively for the story, be it in an earlier stage play version or for the film. The Blues Brothers has no such numbers; but this doesn’t necessarily forbid it from being part of the musical genre, Phyllida Lloyd’s film from 2008, Mamma Mia is based on a stage musical which exclusively uses songs from the back catalogue of 1970’s Swedish pop band Abba, writer Catherine Johnson weaved a story together around the lyrics of Abba songs. The Blues Brothers may not have the same level of intricacy in terms of plotting around the songs but it is riddled with famous works from other artists, it has many extended cameos from Blues and Soul greats like Johnny Lee Hooker, Cab Calloway, James Brown, and Ray Charles and often they bring with them their own material. An excellent second act set piece with Aretha Franklin sees her character trying to convince her husband not to leave her and rejoin the band, to think about what he’s doing and think about the consequences of his actions. Instead of singing a new song written exclusively for the film, she sings her 1968 classic “Think” which was originally released twelve years previously on her Aretha Now album. The fact that the lyrics of the song “you need me, and I need you, without each other there is nothing we can do” match the scene at hand, simply illustrates the design of the production around the songs rather than the songs around the production. The “Think” scene is one of the few examples where the music is appropriate to the action of the scene, a performance of Jail-house rock being another example. But most of the songs performed in The Blues Brothers have no relevance or bearing to the plot. Ray Charles performs Shake a Tail Feather to demonstrate how a particular instrument hasn’t lost its action, the lyrics of the song have no relevance or bearing on the scene. Later The Blues Brothers have two separate performances, one in a Country and Western bar when they’re forced to change their line-up to fit their rather aggressive audiences listening habits so they perform the theme from the T.V. show Rawhide. Later the band perform three numbers in the Palace Hotel Ballroom to an audience of five thousand people, Minnie the Moocher fronted by Calloway, Sweet Home Chicago, and Everybody Needs Somebody to Love, none of which have any baring on the story apart from the occasional off hand remark about the number of police officers who are waiting to apprehend the brothers after the performance.
Music is one of the driving forces of the plot, to save the day; the brothers must get the band back together and perform songs to an audience. So how is this a musical and not Control for example, Anton Corbijn’s film from 2007 which followed the highs and lows of the ill fated Ian Curtis and also used music as a driving force. If The Blues Brothers was contained to only performances within the story space, for example the two aforementioned gigs, then it would be harder to make that call, but The Blues Brothers often breaks the boundaries of the stage and the microphone, and even backing musicians, the aforementioned Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin sequences being two of the more obvious examples. During Charles scene the singing and dancing miraculously spreads from the shop floor to the surrounding streets with hundred of people joining in a massive dance sequence, even though the band is also present in this scene (and amazingly know how to perform the song perfectly) Charles himself is micless as are the instrument’s the band are playing, so how does the sound of the song travel into the street? How do the masses of people know the dance routine? In the Franklin “Think” scene, none of the vocalists have microphones, not only that but no band is present (with the exception of a saxophonist) so where does the music come from? The answer is, of course, that there is no answer. The logic of a musical provides that when the time is right the music and the dancers will just be there, how and why are really not valid considerations. So from this we can assume that The Blues Brothers is a musical? Well, not quite. The music rarely carries the story, the musical numbers never represent dialogue sequences, if dialogue sequences are required they are presented as spoken word rather than the lyrics of a song. Is this a necessary requirement of the musical feature film? Perhaps not, but it is a point that makes The Blues Brothers stand out, when asked to name ten musicals films a cinephile can be forgiven for neglecting The Blues Brothers for this very reason. Yet its logic is all over the place, it doesn’t conform to the parameters of a traditional musical, but it’s not exclusively a comedy about musicians either, it’s a bit of both.
Tonally, The Blues Brothers is erratic at best, something which garnered it heavy criticism at the time of its release (and still today). This erratic nature is quite possibly what has helped the film to become a cult hit. A few more examples of the films unusual take on it genre: firstly, if The Blues Brothers is a musical, then its peculiar for the lack of family friendly content, traditionally a musicals target audience is for parents and children to watch together, although they often carry adult themes like The Sound of Music, they are usually dealt with in such a way that any overriding thematic negativity is beyond the average child’s ability to comprehend. The Blues Brothers frequently uses expletives which is probably the only reason the film has retained its 15 certificate from the BBFC, one scene with Sister Mary uses swearing as a reason for the sister to beat the brothers with a wooden stick for comic effect. An earlier scene features a prison property manager played by Frank Oz delicately displaying a soiled condom to Jake, not appropriate content for children by any stretch. By comparison to the film musicals of today, The Blues Brothers is tame, Chicago for example is sexually charged, and violent throughout, a second act execution sequence has the same stomach turning impact as it would in any genre, 2008’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street showcases Tim Burton’s visual skills at their gothic best and features a barrage of grizzly murders interspersed and sometimes interacting with a song and a dance. The Blues Brothers doesn’t just curse, its last act shifts the focus away from music and towards an incredible, and frankly ridiculous car chase and a siege of a council building Jake and Elwood have run into. There are also two subplots which have nothing to do with music or musicians, Carrie Fishers vengeful attacks on Jake, and the Nazi’s pursuing of Elwood are in no way connected to The Blues, in fact one Nazi rather disgustedly remarks that Elwood is Catholic, a believable moment of bigotry in a musical doesn’t really fit the bill, the bigotry isn’t the problem, that it’s believable is the problem, it takes us out of the absurdist reality Landis has created. A brief scene with Johnny Lee Hooker playing music in the street is another moment of social realism, his cameo stands out as he’s the only one of the famous musicians in the film who isn’t also playing a part. The voyeuristic style in which the scene is shot alludes to an establishment of the African-American dominated world that Jake and Ellwood inhabit but unlike an earlier scene at a posh French restaurant this establishment doesn’t appear to be a caricature but instead rather genuine.
The films opening is another example of Landis playing with genre pre-conceptions, we start with a collection of aerial shots of industrial Chicago, smoke and fumes escaping into the sky, the fires of industry burning below. We then arrive at the prison and follow Jake from his cell to the gates where Elwood is waiting for him, the sequence is dark, eerie, and moody to a point with only brief comical hints at the film you’re about to see; The Blues Brothers is effectively the opposite of what its prologue establishes. The first five minutes of the film are music-less up to just moments before the title card rises on screen, a musical with a silent opening, a comedy with opening shots which look like Ridley Scott could have used them to pad out Blade Runner. There is no non-diegetic sound within The Blues Brothers, no score, music is either performed, or played on records or radios, the films climatic sequence is played with no music with the exceptions of the band continuing to play Sweet Home Chicago without their vocalists, and Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries which a Nazi plays in his car, and of course Wagner was Hitler’s favourite composer after all (a stigma most Wagner enthusiasts would rather was forgotten). It all speaks of the contradictions within The Blues Brothers, sometimes naturalistic, sometimes absurd, sometimes witty other times slapstick, sometimes it’s a musical, sometimes it’s simply about musicians. The Blues Brothers is a film which evades the traditional definition, a quality which it can claim as its greatest fault and its greatest success.