Lately, there has been a bit of a dearth of films I find myself interested in reviewing in writing, while there are others that I simply have not had the chance to watch yet. In the meantime, let’s revisit a topic I’ve been wanting to discuss for awhile now: what makes a good movie musical, and why The Blues Brothers is a great example of one done correctly.
When approaching the subject on the adaptation of musicals into film form, there are multiple branches one can take to construct it. As far as I’m concerned, there are only two effective paths to making the jump properly: you can either adapt something into a deliberate movie experience with the musical element becoming more of a method of delivery, or simply filming a stage production verbatim. Many productions have chosen the former over the latter, to various degrees of success, but The Blues Brothers was in a unique position where the characters and premise existed in another media, and even already had musical accompaniment, but there was no feature length focal point, giving Landis a significant degree of creative freedom. He had a chance to make this into what I consider the truest form of having a movie musical: a unique standalone idea that is able to utilize the full extent of the creative freedom that film provides while also having musical accompaniment that fits the universe rather than clashing against it. Despite the numerous production issues that this film had throughout its development cycle, this premise was upheld throughout and it works fantastically.
Piece one seems easy but doesn’t actually happen very often in many successful movie musicals: casting talented musicians and personalities. See, peers like Phantom of the Opera and even Guys and Dolls were notorious for some extreme miscasting- Gerard Butler in the former and Marlon Brando in the latter. In this film, the exact opposite is true, since while John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd are the least musically inclined members, they also are not lacking talent and do not carry the bag of the production. Instead, you get many scenes that feature the genius of James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway, John Lee Hooker, with plenty of contributing talent in actual musicians that make up the Blues Brothers Band. When we don’t have those direct contributions, we also have background music featuring the likes of Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, and Fats Domino. In essence, music is the bones of this film rather than an accessory, and it’s also a movie first and foremost- Landis was able to combine the two mediums in their purest forms to create a piece that was designed from the ground up to be a movie musical.
Naturally, this film isn’t perfect- as mentioned, Aykroyd and Belushi are the weakest musical links though they definitely bring the acting and personality their characters desperately need. It’s not much of a complaint, but many side characters come in more for what feels like a cameo than a full role in this film, which makes sense since you’re essentially receiving one soundtrack song contribution from each guest. The reason this movie musical works is because it continues to make use of the fact it is a film, such as having the huge car crash and crashes towards the end, the use of ADR and not relying on a live soundtrack while performing scenes on set, and being able to see the world of Illinois through a more omnipotent lens that isn’t replicated on a stage production. Most of the critiques of the film are that its technical execution isn’t very stylized, but it’s a small trade-off when you have so many other selling points in the film itself- you’re able to see the characters of Jake and Elwood through their interactions with the world around them and each other, and how they treat members of their immediate community versus the outsiders that have exploited them. This film truly feels like a reflection of the working class musician’s journey rather than highbrow art, a genuine look into the nature of jazz and classic R&B and the communities that propped them up and made them successful. I give this film an 8 out of 10.