"The Blues Brothers" has emerged from a tumult of publicity and hearsay as a ponderous comic monstrosity that should give everyone involved a right to sing the blues and feel low down.
Extravagantly budgeted at $28.5 million (including Universal's 25 percent overhead) and wretchedly shot, "The Blues Brothers" has a slim chance of proving diverting to customers who think John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd are hilarious by definition when they put on the black suits, dark glasses and frowns that constitute the total identity of Jake and Elwood Blues, apparent hoods revealed to be blues vocalists.
This facetious brother act was launched three years ago on "Saturday Night Live" and evolved in a flunky sensation, particularly after Belushi and Aykroyd did a series of concerts in Los Angeles with Steve Martin. The routine led to a best-selling album, "A Briefcase Full of Blues." It appeared that the comics, who thought of themselves as closet musicians, were ambivalent about the hoax, uncertain whether Jake and Elwood should be regarded as funny impostors or real bluesmen who just looked a little funny. Incredibly, they still haven't made up their minds.
Belushi, Aykroyd and director John Landis have betrayed the expectations of comedy fans as wantonly and foolishly as Stanley Dubrick betrayed the implied contract between himself and horror fans by transforming "The Shining" into a self-indulgent schnorrer. Needless to say, the greatest casualty of this astonishing and surely avoidable miscalculation will be the reputations of the performers themselves.
Far from developing into a snappy comedy team before your hopeful, pleasure-seeking eyes. Belushi and Aykroyd hold their poses. There is no witty repartee or deft physical interaction. They maintain a presumptuous, mind-boggling double-deadpan routine for the duration of a starring vehicle that is starving for comic characterization, incident and invention, for a reason to exist. The seance is relieved only fitfully by a spot of singing and dancing, which helps but adds nothing fresh to the act.
Since the stars insist on wearing those blasted shades for the entire movie, which runs a plodding 130 minutes (down about half an hour from the version that exhibitors, still drenched from taking a bath on Universal's "1941" began sarastically referring to as "1942"), their eyes are almost never visible.
Belushi lowers his shades once near the end, supposedly a dynamite jest but actually a confirmation of the obvious: Never, never, never should anyone, especially a performer with expressive eyes, be allowed the imbecilic drollery of concealing them from a motion picture audience.
There is no more material sustaining "The Blues Brothers" than one would find in a silent comedy short running 10 or 20 minutes. While Landis must take the rap for the overscaled production and the slovenly workmanship, Universal has only itself to blame for authorizing a princely budget for a scrap of comic content:
Jake is paroled from the prison at Joliet, Ill. Elwood picks him up. They visit the orphanage in Calumet City where they were raised and learn that it may be closed for nonpayment of back taxes. They are moved to do a good deed for alma mater and attempt to reassemble the members of their old blues band, dispersed since Jake was sent to the cooler, in order to book some gigs and raise the sum ($5,000) necessary to keep the orphanage going.
That's it. In the course of pursuing this aim, the brothers are aided by some characters, resisted or threatened by others, chased by the cops. The format is meant to allow room for both comic set-pieces and musical interludes showcasing a number of famous, stirring black performers obviously revered by the filmmakers: James Brown (appearing as a preacher, backed by James Cleveland's Southern California Community Choir), Aretha Franklin (cast as the co-proprietor of a soul food restaurant), John Lee Hooker (performing all too briefly on Chicago's Maxwell Street in an interlude that is fleetingly beautiful), Ray Charles (the proprietor of a music store) and Cab Colloway (the orphanage's venerable janitor, reprising "Minnie the Moocher" in white tie and tails at the climactic fund-raising concert).
The scanty material might be forgiven if the highlights were irresistible. Unfortunately, Landis' direction is so consistently inflated yet inept that they never have a chance. "The Blues Brothers" is misconceived pictorially from the opening shot, an aerial panorama of the factories of Gary, Ind., at dawn. This somber, documentary prospect is ill-suited to a comedy, and Landis never does find an appropriate lighting scheme or rhythm once the stars enter the picture. The documentary gloom appears to harmonize with their playing style.
While it's apparent that Landis wanted to create a big, expensive joyous popular entertainment -- something that would inspire folks to begin singing and dancing and rolling in the aisles -- it's equally apparent that he lacked the aptitude or experience to bring it off. The awful truth is that "The Blues Brothers" simply looks too grungy and amateurish to inspire lyric enthusiasm. All those would-be knockout musical numbers and undermined technically by crampep camera angles, murky lighting, ragged cutting and tinny sound.
Landis and cinematographer Steven Katz, who had never supervised a production more complicated than Landis' low-budget in "Kentucky Fried Movie," are in way over their heads and don't know how to get out. A movie industry with a vested interest in their future might have prevented them from inflicting a $30-million fiasco on themselves and the public. The best joke in "1941" was the closing credit that identified someone as "executive in charge of production." It appears that "The Blues Brothers" has also come to grief for want of some mature judgment in critical positions.
"The Blues Brothers" may have some documentary appeal for people who enjoy car demolition footage for its own excessive sake, apart from dramatic or even humorous justification. Landis, enlarging on the slapstick spectacle that ended his enormously successful "National Lampoon's Animal House" (how unfortunate that this melee happened to be the least accomplished and amusing sequence in the picture), has engorged the frail plot of "The Blues Brothers" with car chases and crack-ups, filmed with such avid, humorless starkness on the streets of Chicago that comic sensations are virtually obliterated.
Did someone mention scathing satire? "The Blues Brothers" dares to take little rabbit punches at such sacred cows as the American Nazi Party (which might have cause to feel flattered, since Henry Gibson plays the party boss with a steely, soft-spoken dignity that's rather disarming), Country & Western musicians (expediently pressed into service as the bad guys who chase the heroes when the filmmakers appear to mislay the Nazis and cops), SWAT teams, National Guardsmen, bad-tempered old nuns. Belushi and Aykroyd didn't spend years on "Saturday Night Live" for nothing, man.
What do they do for an encore now that they've failed to transform Jake and Elwood into the comedy team moviegoers had a right to expect? It may be too late to go back to the drawing board and start from scratch. According to Aykroyd, the movie "was written in a spirit of freedom and celebration. It's the story of two hoodlums who want to go straight and get redeemed. But they just don't have it together and they keep getting into bigger and bigger trouble."
Ironically, the stars didn't get it together either. "The Blues Brothers" offers the melancholy spectacle of them sinking deeper and deeper into a comic grave.