Blues Brothers 2000

vlcsnap2010101416h51m51I have to confess a certain indifference to the Blues Brothers, both on Saturday Night Live and in their first movie — I always thought the Festrunk brothers would’ve made better heroes for an SNL comedy. The first Blues Brothers, directed by John Landis and starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, was little more than a string of great musical numbers and endless car wrecks; it set the stage for Hollywood blockbusters as we know them today — plotless, senseless, self-indulgent mayhem, a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Blues Brothers 2000 could be described the same way, yet, oddly, I found myself enjoying it. For one thing, it’s divorced from all the late-’70s Blues Brothers hype; it plays as an affectionate, nostalgic tribute. And Landis, returning as director, is clearly relieved to revisit the characters and blues greats he loves so much. It’s his most relaxed moviemaking in years, and his knack for contrast — between deadpan-cool comedy and impassioned music — works better here than it did in the original.

Aykroyd returns as Elwood Blues, who’s been in prison for eighteen years. After his release, he learns of his brother Jake’s death (in a nicely restrained scene). Neither Elwood nor the movie wastes time mourning Jake (or John Belushi — Aykroyd probably felt that John would’ve wanted it that way). Elwood quickly gets to work assembling his old band members, hauling along a kid (J. Evan Bonifant) who’s been dumped on him by the nun at his old orphanage.

John Goodman is also along for the ride, as a bartender who hooks up with Elwood and assumes the unenviable task of filling Belushi’s shoes. As a comedian, Goodman is up to the challenge (though the script, by Aykroyd and Landis, gives him very little to do); as a singer, he’s a passionate belter who too often throws his considerable weight into a lyric to sell it. Mostly, I wasn’t buying.

The “plot” also involves Elwood’s “stepbrother” (Joe Morton), a cop who spends most of the movie chasing the band until he finally “gets the calling” and joins up. Morton, whose voice puts both Aykroyd and Goodman to shame, should have been incorporated into the band much earlier in the film. Of course, then we wouldn’t have had the traditional Landis car pile-up — which is admittedly funny here; the cars just keep piling and piling until the excess becomes almost surreal.

Landis is childlike in his eagerness to get to the music scenes, and the presence of legends energizes him. Aretha Franklin and James Brown return, as do the hardy group of veteran players in the Blues Brothers Band; in the climax, the boys go up against an all-star band whose roster reads like a Who’s Who in Blues. Problem: Aykroyd and his fellow frontmen pale next to genuine blues greats (as he and Belushi did in the original). Solution: look behind the Brothers and concentrate on the masters backing them up.

Blues Brothers 2000 is probably an unnecessary sequel. Why haul the black suits and Ray-Bans out of mothballs after 18 years? Partly because John Landis needs a hit after Beverly Hills Cop III and The Stupids. Yet the movie isn’t totally opportunistic. Dan Aykroyd has never lost his passion for the music (House of Blues is a life project for him), and maybe he just wanted to jam with the greats again. Older fans, though, may feel that the Blues Brothers died with John Belushi, and they may wonder why Aykroyd doesn’t feel the same way.

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