Film: Landis turns a paler shade of Blue
The big picture
Friday 22 May 1998
John Landis (PG)
Until some bright spark decides that the world needs a Rocky VI, the new comedy could rate as the least eagerly anticipated sequel in cinema history. And one of the tardiest - it's 18 years since a generation of dopeheads grinned along to the facetious, dislocated humour of The Blues Brothers while the rest of the world scratched its head and wondered what was so funny.
Well: what was so funny? There was the unflappable, cadaverous composure of the two heroes, Jake and Elwood Blues, in the face of increasingly hazardous and surreal situations. And there were the car chases, shot and edited with an anthropological coldness which replaced the form's customary suspense and made the pile-ups numbly fascinating, like a zombie sex orgy. The picture perfectly suited the rambling, footloose rhythms of its director John Landis, a wayward talent who specialises in shaggy- dog stories such as his best film, Into the Night, or shaggy-monster stories like Schlock and An American Werewolf in London. Landis is back on board for , along with his co-writer and lead actor Dan Aykroyd, who plays Elwood, and together they have resurrected many of the first film's trademark scenes.
What they haven't been able to resurrect is John Belushi, who played Jake, though I suspect the possibility was explored - it would certainly have drawn the crowds, and there's the added bonus that the exhumed are only entitled to one tenth of their former salary, and rarely object to night shoots.
The movie never quite compensates for Belushi's absence. Rather than opting for the Trail of the Pink Panther trick of patching together a dead actor's outtakes to create a new performance, the film-makers take the Curse of the Pink Panther route and employ an entirely new performer. The rambunctious young comic Chris Farley would have been a nice choice to climb into Belushi's shoes, if he hadn't already followed in his footsteps in a more tragic sense. So instead there's John Goodman, whose spurious connection to Belushi is that he too happens to be fat. Their qualities, however, are diametrically opposed. While Goodman is warmly stoical, Belushi was uncouth and anarchic, though essentially naive; that's why his pairing with the flat, nasal Aykroyd was inspired. And you knew that Belushi's eyes were fizzing like fireworks behind his black shades, whereas Aykroyd and Goodman are more likely to fizzle out than fizz. In their scenes together, they're like two feed-lines waiting for a pay-off; it's enough to give you the blues.
What lifts you are Landis's engagingly silly flights of fantasy, whether it's the computer-generated horsemen of the apocalypse thundering overhead during "Riders in the Sky", or Elwood disguising himself under a mound of shaving foam with his sunglasses worn on top, like some twisted homage to Claude Rains. A few of the gentler gags are closer to the dry, stilted style of Aki Kaurismaki than fans of the hip Finnish director might care to concede. I had the lyrics to the film's Russian drinking song going round in my head for hours. Altogether now: "Please Mr Frost/ Please don't freeze me/ And please don't freeze my horse."
One of the few disappointments is the decision to extend the soundtrack's nostalgic bias to the picture's casting. The fleeting appearance of two young musicians - the radiant Erykah Badu and the sassy 16-year-old blues singer Jonny Lang - briefly invigorates the picture, but mostly Landis has called upon anyone who has ever played R'n'B and still has a pulse, or at least the number of a good taxidermist. The Blues Brothers Band are back, which will gladden the heart of anyone who can't get enough of pony-tailed, bottle-tanned Hall & Oates types with too-stiff jeans and weekend sneakers. James Brown reprises his role as a gospel preacher, and gets to yelp the line "Can you not embrace those who have wronged?", which is a wry touch. Meanwhile, a swollen Aretha Franklin belts out a new version of "Respect" in an embroidered orange suit that makes her look like a singing scatter-cushion.
Something that's missing from the music is its incongruity. When The Blues Brothers was released in 1980, cocky New Wavers were still surfing the charts; making an edgy, irreverent youth movie which was also a blues/soul/gospel musical seemed like a vaguely rebellious concept. But no movie which climaxes with Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood jamming together, as does, has any right appearing in the same paragraph as the word "rebellious". Still, it's pleasing that the sweetly anachronistic production numbers have survived. There's a glorious set-piece at a phone-sex office, where employees in kaftans and hairnets cast aside their knitting to twirl swivel chairs and roll across desks, an image which should make 0898 addicts feel happier about calling in the future.
If I seem to have avoided the subject of the film's plot, that's because there isn't one. Landis never struck you as a director much preoccupied with logic, but in , his disregard for coherence and convention is so determined that it's almost charming. The conflict which the film has been building up to, with fascist thugs and Russian mafiosi cornering the band, is swiftly resolved when a deus ex machina materialises in the shape of a voodoo priestess who turns the bad guys into rats. Another perverse surprise, which hints that Landis is out to confound rather than conform to expectations, comes when the group fail to win the musical contest which they've spent the whole movie preparing for. How's that for a double non-whammy?
The film's sense of character motivation will also frustrate the literal- minded. After Elwood is released from prison at the start of the film, he hooks up with Buster (J Evan Bonifant), a young orphan and wannabe Blues Brother who wasn't even a Blues Foetus when the first film was made. Elwood decides to round up his old group and enter them into a "Battle of the Bands", and you half expect it all to be in aid of Buster - perhaps the prize money will go on the boy's education, or toward the drug habit which he'll need to foster if he wants to pursue a serious blues career.
But Buster's future doesn't even enter into it. In fact, there is no discernible reason for Elwood to reassemble the band, although when you've spent nearly two decades in prison, even jamming with Clapton and Winwood could start to look appealing - just as, for Aykroyd himself, pulling on the old suit and shades might have seemed like the only option after 18 years of making movies that few people saw and no-one can remember.
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