The Blues Brothers: Extended Edition
Of all the New Hollywood directors to arrive during the transformative years of the 1970s, only one staked his flag on the foremost principle of old-guard filmmaking: bigger is better. And by some standards, John Landis was a late arrival anyway. While the upheaval of Hollywood had paved the way for the likes of Friedkin, Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, and De Palma, Landis didn't achieve breakout status until 1978's Animal House which, while not delivering Academy Awards or pioneering special effects, set the tone for a new generation of raunch-coms. From there, Landis had the creative freedom to do virtually anything, and until his career was effectively hamstrung by The Twilight Zone (1983) and its on-set tragedy, his output was prolific, funny, and larger than life. Like a kid in art class who had to have the biggest canvas and buckets of paint, Landis delivered 1981's An American Werewolf in London to box-office success thanks to clever tone-shifts and stunning makeup work he returned to similar ground by shooting Michael Jackson's memorable "Thriller" video soon thereafter. Trading Places (1983) with Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy delivered an acute class-war satire, while 1985's Into the Night starring Jeff Goldblum and Michelle Pfeiffer blended screwball, noir, and suspense in L.A.'s neon-after-dark milieu. But it's likely Landis's most memorable achievement will be The Blues Brothers (1980), which is more than a comedy, or even a musical twenty-five years after the fact, it's a bona fide Hollywood epic and one of the finest celebrations of American music ever put on film.
Taking cues from "Saturday Night Live," Jailhouse Rock, "Dragnet," The Keystone Cops, and the blues and soul sounds of Memphis, Chicago, and New York, The Blues Brothers begins as Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd) picks up his brother 'Joliet' Jake Blues (John Belushi) from prison, where he's just been paroled after three years. One can only guess if the two will return to their life of petty crime and ongoing traffic violations a visit to Sister Mary Stigmata (Kathleen Freeman), aka "The Penguin," reveals that the orphanage where the Blues boys grew up is about to be foreclosed. Prepared to raise $5,000 in matter of days, Jake determines that it's time to reassemble "the band," a rhythm-and-blues outfit so powerful it could "turn goat piss into gasoline." The problem, of course, is finding the musicians, all of whom have long given up on The Blues Brothers and their string of bad IOUs. But in short order the rhythm section is located in a local hotel lounge, while the trumpet player is the maitre d' of a French restaurant, and the guitarist and sax player work the kitchen of a downtown soul food cafe. After a few mishaps and blackmailing a local booker, a 5,000-seat hall is slated for a one-night-only performance all that remains is for Jake and Elwood to get there on time with police, Nazis, a country band, and a female assassin hot on their trail.
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If any film's status as a "classic" can be gauged by how quotable it is, then The Blues Brothers shares company with Casablanca, Dr. Strangelove, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail simply say "I hate Illinois Nazis," "Four fried chickens and a Coke," or "We're on a mission from God" to virtually anyone you know and you might get the "It's 106 miles to Chicago " speech in reply. The script credited to Aykroyd and Landis, with contributions from John and Judy Belushi hums along with deadpan dialogue, and while it often remains the movie's most memorable element, it also overshadows just how big the picture actually is. In no other film has John Landis indulged in such playful surrealism, toying with logic-defying suspension of disbelief simply because seeing, and accepting, what is not possible is why movies are magical. It's why we allow people to break out in song during musicals, or as Landis says, why you don't explain the origins of a monster-movie's giant bug. From the very moment that the Bluesmobile jumps a Chicago drawbridge, we find ourselves in the realm of comic fantasy, where the parishioners of Rev. Cleophus James' congregation leap 30 feet in the air; where Jake and Elwood survive the utter destruction of buildings and gas stations and telephone booths; where a blue-collar blues band becomes a tuxedo-clad orchestra in the blink of an eye. The movie-musical genre proves a solid foundation for such rich storytelling, filled out here not only with live performances by James Brown, Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker, and Ray Charles, but also with a soundtrack that samples the classic Stax catalog and Henri Mancini's "Peter Gunn Theme" retrofitted with a turbocharger. Small jokes abound throughout two behind-the-camera legends, Frank Oz and Steve Spielberg, give Jake receipts to bookend the movie. And Landis one-ups William Friedkin by moving the movie car-chase to America's new main street, inside a shopping mall that offers, among other things, "disco pants and haircuts."
Universal's "25th Anniversary" DVD release of The Blues Brothers offers an improvement over the initial "Collector's Edition" disc, in part because it includes both John Landis's extended edition (2 hrs. 27 min.) and the original theatrical cut (2 hrs. 7 min.), which makes its DVD debut here. Both versions also arrive in anamorphic transfers (1.85:1), while Dolby Digital 5.1 is available on the Extended Cut and Dolby 2.0 Surround on the theatrical version. "Stories Behind Making The Blues Brothers" (56 min.) is the sole supplement on Side A (returning from the original release), which gathers together recollections from the film's principals. Side B includes a brief introduction by Dan Aykroyd, the featurettes "Going Rounds: A Day on The Blues Brothers Tour" (7 min.), "Transposing the Music" (15 min.), and "Remembering John" (9 min.), Production Notes, and the theatrical trailer. Both cuts also include special chapter-selection menus linking to musical highlights. Keep-case.