Saturday, June 20, 2015

On a Mission From God

Mrs. Tarantino: Are you the police?

Elwood (Dan Aykroyd): No, ma'am. We're musicians.

One of the enduring mysteries of life is this: Why are some of the greatest talents in every field snuffed out far too soon? Entertainers appear particularly prone to this — or maybe it just seems that way, given that entertainers are in the public spotlight and people who teach or do important research generally are not. Nevertheless, talented people from every walk of life are taken before their time.

And every time I watch "The Blues Brothers," which premiered on this date in 1980, I am reminded that such a talent, John Belushi, was lost when he had so much still to share with us. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that Belushi was one of the elite performers of my generation, but the sad truth is that he was known to most of us for only a few years before he died.

Ah, but what years they were! And "The Blues Brothers" is probably exceeded only by "Animal House" in terms of the influence Belushi's work had on that generation.

The story opened with Belushi (Joliet Jake) being paroled from prison and Dan Aykroyd (Elwood) picking him up. Jake's first stop after being released was a visit to a nun known as "the Penguin" who told them the orphanage where Jake and Elwood were brought up was going to be shut down unless $5,000 could be raised. The Blues Brothers offered to come up with the money another way, but the Penguin refused to accept stolen money.

And that led the Blues Brothers to their "mission from God."

They went to a church where James Brown was pastor — and they saw the light. They were inspired to raise the funds the Penguin needed by legal means. They set out to reunite their old band and put on a show to raise the money.

And thus began the Blues Brothers' odyssey. They found their old buddies in some pretty improbable places. Aretha Franklin, for example, was running a restaurant and Ray Charles was running a music store. (Franklin, wrote critic Roger Ebert, "occupies one of the movie's best scenes." I am inclined to agree.)

Along the way they trashed a mall by driving through it, offended a restaurant patron and encountered Henry Gibson and a group of Nazis blocking a bridge.

Somehow, they managed to do their benefit show and raise the money for the Penguin's orphanage. They were a little late to their show so Cab Calloway filled in to warm up the crowd with a rendition of "Minnie the Moocher."

And they repeatedly encountered a mysterious woman (Carrie Fisher) who was intent upon killing Jake. She took potshots at him periodically. She tried to blow him up. She used a flamethrower around a gas tank next to the phone booth where the Blues Brothers were trying to make a call. All without confronting him directly — until she actually did confront them at the end of the movie.

The Blues Brothers drove off in a hail of gunfire, and they were eventually followed by a line of police cars that rivaled the one that pursued O.J. Simpson in real life 14 years later.

I'm not kidding. There have been some wild car chases in the movies, but the one in "The Blues Brothers" has to be one of the wildest.

"The fact is," wrote Ebert, "the whole movie is a chase, with Jake and Elwood piloting a used police car that seems ... to have a life of its own."

In spite of everything it had been through, that car led a merry little chase at the end of the movie that was worthy of "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" or "Sex and the Single Girl."

"The Blues Brothers" is still enjoyable. I watched it again recently, and it is as entertaining now as it was 35 years ago.