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Mission Accomplished: Forty Years of the Blues Brothers

Matt Roper pays an anniversary tribute to a musical film he describes as a joyful comedy bursting with instantly quotable lines and unforgettable, toe-tapping, shoe-shuffling rollickingly good musical numbers

Movie musicals aren’t everybody’s cup of tea. The end of the traditional Hollywood musical arrived at the end of the Sixties in an era that ushered in sugary offerings like Hello Dolly!Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Funny Girl, by which point the times were definitely a-changin’.

The rock musical practically owned the Seventies and had plenty to say for itself. I’m thinking of The Who’s Tommy, the anti-Vietnam War protest musical Hair and the Beatles-inspired big budget flop Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Sure, there were Oscars for Cabaret (which seemed to be a throwback to traditional Hollywood musical fare) while Gene Wilder enchanted us with the scrumdiddlyumptious Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

The studio nailed it with the always remembered Grease, which saw cinema audiences hopelessly devoted to the genre of the movie musical once again. Then, shortly afterwards and seemingly out of nowhere, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd crashed onto the screen with The Blues Brothers.

I say out of nowhere, because unlike the musicals mentioned above, The Blues Brothershadn’t been immortalized on the Broadway stage beforehand. On the contrary, it was based on two characters developed from a recurring musical sketch which kicked off Stateside on the NBC variety series Saturday Night Live early in 1976.

Such was the enormous impact of this musical incarnation of Belushi and Aykroyd with television audiences, they even found themselves releasing an album, Briefcase Full of Blues, which shot right up the Billboard chart and rested in its rightful place in the Number One position, spawning two hit singles and the seed of an idea for a feature film. When they decided to go ahead with it, Hollywood studios entered an intense war of bidding for the rights to make it.

The story is simple: two ex-cons, dressed-up-to-the-nines with voices to kill, sporting dark shades and hitting the road together – dispatched on a ‘mission from God’ to raise five thousand dollars for the orphanage in which they were raised.

Ultimately, the film is all about the music, but the music isn’t just good. It’s rollickingly good. With a soundtrack written for (and sung by) the likes of Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles and James Brown (look out for Chaka Khan in his choir), it just doesn’t doesn’t get better than this. It also boasts a top-dollar guest-list that speaks for itself, with non-singing cameo roles from the likes of Twiggy, Henry Gibson, Carrie Fisher, John Candy, Charles Napier and even Steven Spielberg.

But it’s not just the star-encrusted credits which make this movie shine. It’s the Bluesmobile, it’s the car chases, it’s the cop blockades, it’s the sonnet to Chicago and that climactic concert at the Palace Hotel Ballroom. And the laughs never end, thanks to Belushi and Aykroyd’s easy, dynamic rapport.

The scene never to be forgotten is the one commonly and affectionately referred to as The Penguin. It’s where Jake and Elwood get a lesson (a much needed one) on how not to talk to a nun. To be specific, the fearsome Sister Mary doesn’t appreciate ‘filthy mouths’ and allows herself to be let loose onto the pair of them with a large ruler. Kudos to Kathleen Freeman whose impeccable comic timing and immaculate poise puts the scene straight into my all-time top ten comedy moments in film.

If it feels like one long party, then that’s no small coincidence. Shooting began forty years ago on set at Universal Pictures and the off-set shenanigans are well documented. Cast and crew were, by many accounts, suitably fluffed for the occasion with a fully stocked bar and plenty of drugs. It’s a wonder the movie ever got off the ground but we’re so glad it did – amidst the chaos.

Chaotic, yes, but in the midst of all that chaos lies the brilliance of The Blues Brothers. It’s two timeless hours of joyful comedy, road-tripping, instantly quotable lines and those unforgettable, toe-tapping, shoe-shuffling numbers. It’s often mentioned as a cult classic due to a devoted following, but it’s appeal ranges far and wide, pleasing both the girls and the guys with equal measure. No mean feat for any musical. They’re still talking about it, forty years later. L’Osservatore Romano – the Vatican City’s daily newspaper – endorsed it on its 30th anniversary, describing it as “a memorable film, and, judging by the facts, a Catholic one.”

Mission from God accomplished, boys.

Matt Roper is a British comedian based in New York City. His relationship with Lush goes back to 2011 when he performed for the muddy festival-goers of Lushfest, returning the following year to curate the line-up of the comedy stage. As he travels around the world, he shares his musings with us here in a series of writings – a sifting of thought from a restless but always seeking imagination.  

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