ARTS: CINEMA: The Blues Brothers just get younger
Despite the death of John Belushi, John Landis hasn't given up on the Blues Brothers. Nicholas Barber meets the director with a mission to entertain
Sunday 10 May 1998
The Jake and Elwood of the first Blue movie are nowhere to be seen. Dan Aykroyd's taciturn Elwood Blues becomes the surrogate father of a 10-year- old boy. Jake Blues, like the rampaging comedian who played him, is dead and gone. Filling the black suit that John Belushi vacated, when he overdosed in 1982, is John Goodman, who plays this new addition to the Blues family as Fred Flintstone in shades. The R&B legends of the first movie are joined by the young, MTV-approved likes of Blues Traveler and Johnny Lang. The swear words have been cut, the nastiness softened, the fantasy played up and the chaos toned down. I have a feeling that Jake Blues would be somersaulting in his grave.
But despite appearances, Blues Brothers 2000 is not the cynical brainchild of a venal studio executive. It's a labour of love, directed by Landis, and co-written by him and Aykroyd, just as the original was nearly two decades ago. The pair plotted a sequel at the same time, but they consigned it to a bottom drawer when Belushi went to blue heaven, and didn't consider it again until Aykroyd co-founded the House of Blues restaurant chain. At the openings of these restaurants, he would put on his Elwood uniform - suit, trilby, sunglasses - and sing along with the Blues Brothers band. The audiences were ecstatic. Aykroyd was overwhelmed. He contacted Landis and mooted a sequel, and Landis, in turn, was fascinated by the idea of making a film which was set so long after its predecessor, and which reunited the entire original cast - with the obvious exception. His other two motivations, he says, were his love of Aykroyd, and his love of the music he put in the first movie and could put in a second. Two years ago, Landis and Aykroyd wrote their script.
Which is why, one morning a few weeks ago, Landis sat opposite me in a very modern Belgravia hotel room, while his wife and costume designer of 22 years popped out to the shops. He is 47. With his tweed jacket, spectacles and greying beard, he looks as if he'd be more suited to a geography class than a room straight out of a magazine fashion spread. "It's a little too fascist for me," he remarks, in a goofy whine. If the film-directing business dries up, he could get a job alongside his friend Frank Oz, voicing the Muppets. His pitch bounces up and down, and his conversation is fast, funny, eager, and so prone to digressions that neither he nor I can remember what the question was by the time he's finished answering it. Talking to him is a joyful experience most of the time.
When I comment that in BB2000 (no, you haven't missed BBs 2-1999) there was no reason for Elwood to get the band back together, he snorts in protest. "Of course there was a reason to get the band back ... well, I'm not going to explain. If you're asking me to justify the plot, forget it." We're soon back on friendly terms, but never quite as friendly as we were before. Blues Brothers 2000 is a labour of love, all right. It was made for less than its precursor ("Oh, much less money, oh, oh yes," chortles the director). Going against the stereotype, Universal's accountants didn't want to bankroll a sequel at all, even though the first Blues Brothers movie made "bucket loads of money", and has, over the years, accrued some of the critical approval it didn't garner when it was released. "We gotta lot of heat on the first picture," says Landis. "That's what's so ironic. We were so badly treated by the press at the time, and now they come to me saying 'you're tampering with a classic!' I wanna go 'fuck you, it's mine!' "
One element of The Blues Brothers that the critics did appreciate from day one was its use of Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker, James Brown and Ray Charles. "It was a movie with a mission," explains Landis, as he tucks into his English breakfast. "Dan Aykroyd has a real passion for black American music, and he felt strongly, and he was right, that the 1970s were awful. In '79, the music was entirely disco; it was Abba, it was the Bee Gees, it was really soulless. And these great acts, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, they weren't workin'. They were considered passe, and really one of the main purposes of the movie was to refocus attention on these great American artists. And I can say it worked, it worked big time."
Once I've been treated to a brief lecture on the evils of film reviewers, I suggest, as gently as I can, that this time around there was no need to redirect attention to the king and queen of soul. The guest stars of The Blues Brothers are regarded with more R.E.S.P.E.C.T. than ever. Scooping up some black pudding, Landis agrees. "It's true, that's no longer the issue. These people are recognised. The urgency of the first one ... we didn't have the urgency. This one really was much more about having a good time." He cuts up some ham.
"The major difference between the two movies, really, is that in the first movie we were doing what we called comedy noir. We set up this whole look with these wide-angle lenses and this deadpan delivery, lots of wet streets and neon. Whereas this one I really wanted to make about entertainment. The first movie had eight musical numbers, this has 14. This has major dance production numbers. It's much more about old-fashioned MGM musical kind of entertainment. And I think this one has a lot more heart than the first one. My intention was - Danny said this - we want people to leave the theatre saying, 'Well, that was worth seven bucks'."
There follows a detour on the subject of cinema ticket prices and the technicalities of film projection, which wends its way to the advice that BB2000 should be seen on a big screen. "In San Diego we actually had people get up and dance. It was pretty exciting." His nasal honk grows quieter, until he sounds like a child who's been told off when he was only trying to help. "That's what it's meant to do ... just be fun ...."
It makes you feel horribly guilty, criticising a man who cares about entertaining people as fondly as John Landis. And maybe he's right, maybe BB2000 will be re-evaluated as a classic in years to come. But I'm not so sure. Surely it was the urgency and the black comedy that made The Blues Brothers a must for drunken-student, post-pub video sessions around the globe. Old-fashioned MGM musical entertainment we can get elsewhere.
Still, the Brothers' iconic status won't be dented. In recent years, a whole industry of licensed and unlicensed homage has proliferated, from comic books to TV commercials, from a stage musical to blockbuster movies. "I was offered Men in Black", squawks Landis, "and when I read the script, I said, 'Wait a minute, this is Ghostbusters [one of whom was Aykroyd] dressed as the Blues Brothers! Don't they owe Danny money for this?'"
Landis's other films have been almost as influential. They have served as blueprints for the mainstream adult "screwball" comedy of the 1980s. Any film of the last decade and a half which uses car chases, property destruction, sexy women and young men being rebellious to a rock soundtrack owes something to Landis, although few of them have his humanity, weirdness or anti-establishment attitude. Adding up the Porkies and Police Academies, he can think of "150, 200 films that are directly knocked off Animal House", and last year, his American Werewolf in London emigrated to Paris. Did he have any input on American Werewolf II? "They sent me a cheque."
If "directed by John Landis" has not been the synonym for "guaranteed hit" in the 1990s that it was in the 1980s, when he made Trading Places, Coming to America and the rest, it may be because he has lost his taste for such big, brash comedies. He has just written a script called Susan's Plan, "a little tiny movie that has no stunts and no special effects and is just basically people talking to each other". And his ambition is to film A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. "That's a movie I'd like to make when I grow up. Twain's my hero, but the studio ... the book is a very angry book, it has a very down ending, so I don't know if I'm ever going to get the resources. And you know, film-makers get typecast just like an actor. I would like to make a serious ... you know, a little love story ... but people don't want to give me money for that. The Medicis who patronise us in more ways than one in the film business are not interested in what I would like to do. They're interested in a return on their money."
I left the hotel hoping that both of these films would get made. A Connecticut Yankee might reconnect Landis's gift for larger-than-life idiosyncratic comedy with a sense of purpose lacking in the likes of 1994's Beverly Hills Cop III. And a Landis movie that focuses on people talking to each other could be wonderful, too. There is a lot less humour, warmth and passion in Blues Brothers 2000 than there is in a conversation with the man who made it.
! 'Blues Brothers 2000' (PG) is released on 22 May.
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