Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi’s Blues Brothers act took a long time getting together. They had appeared in utero January 19, 1976—39 years ago tonight—during Saturday Night Live‘s first season, doing “I’m a King Bee” in bee costumes, but with their trademark fedoras and sunglasses. Later, Aykroyd and Belushi often warmed up SNL audiences with the Brothers before the show. Their first official appearance on the air was on April 22, 1978, on what I believe to be the greatest single SNL episode of all time.
At first, audiences weren’t sure how to take them. I remember my own reaction when seeing them for the first time in the spring of ’78—is that supposed to be a joke, or are they serious? Today, we see the Blues Brothers as icons and Aykroyd and Belushi as major figures in the history of American comedy, but that came later. Confusion about what the Brothers were supposed to be lingered for quite a while. After a couple of appearances late in the 1977-78 season of SNL, they played some shows around the country that summer and recorded Briefcase Full of Blues. The album went to #1 in the fall of 1978, much to the consternation of blues purists and rock critics. They didn’t care that the album was seriously intended by Belushi and Aykroyd to be a tribute to their blues heroes, or that it featured Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn, who were in fact heroes.
Two years later, the movie was similarly dissed by many critics, although Roger Ebert liked it. His erstwhile partner, Gene Siskel, called it the best movie ever made in Chicago. Big box-office aside, the soundtrack album was also a smash—“Gimme Some Lovin'” was the lead single, and both “Jailhouse Rock” and “Sweet Home Chicago” got considerable airplay.
Shortly after the movie came out in the summer of 1980, my brother and I, with our respective girlfriends, drove an hour from our hometown to see it at the Orpheum Theater here in Madison. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve seen The Blues Brothers from start to finish since. And whenever I surf past it on cable, I tend to watch it to conclusion—so I have seen the concluding car chase dozens of times over the years. If forced to pick one, it’s my favorite movie of all time, and it’s got my favorite line, about 106 miles to Chicago. I have no idea what it means, precisely, but in that scene, Joliet Jake and Elwood were (and are) the Coolest Guys on Earth.
Blues Brothers 2000, Aykroyd’s sequel released in 1998, is not nearly so cool. The story, which revolves around the reunited band going to a blues contest in New Orleans, is nearly a carbon copy of the original. It’s docked points for including a wisecracking child, and for declaring the Blues Brothers Band the winners of the contest even though their butts are clearly kicked by the Louisiana Gator Boys, led by B.B. King and Eric Clapton. Indeed, the Gator Boys are on the two best numbers from the soundtrack (which is generally excellent), “How Blue Can You Get?” and “New Orleans.” (If you’ve never seen “New Orleans,” you’ll be boggled by the Gator Boys’ lineup. Plus, the clip distills everything that’s great and terrible about Blues Brothers 2000 into four minutes.)
The great thing about the original movie is that it’s dated hardly at all, despite its age. The bit with the American Nazis is clearly out of 1980, but other than that, the rest of the movie is timeless. And any movie that features Ray Charles, Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin, and “Sweet Home Chicago” amped to a level Robert Johnson could never have imagined is something that deserves to be seen again and again for the next hundred years, at least.
(Originally posted at the Daily Aneurysm on June 21, 2005, and edited a bit here.)