A review requested by Mark K, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Let us be very clear about one thing: The Blues Brothers is, by any objective standard, a messy wreck. This is true of the 1980 theatrical cut, and it's even more true of the extended cut prepared years later by director John Landis, which is among history's most pure examples of "I love these people too much to cut away from them" in the annals of after-the-fact tinkering. It's sloppy, unfocused, and it routinely jams the brakes on the plot any amount of momentum it has been able to pick up in order to pause for extended bits - comedy bits and musical bits alike that are lingered over in either version like sacred objects for religious veneration.

That this is so does not in anyway change that The Blues Brothers is an absolutely wonderful movie: surely the best musical action-comedy of the 1980s, and by almost any standard I can think of the best of all the Saturday Night Live-derived features, of which it was the first (I will entertain arguments in favor of Wayne's World and MacGruber, but they'd have to be awfully persuasive). These are neither of them terribly impressive bars to clear, but that's by no means the fault of a movie which is one of the enormously charming passion projects of its era, a misshapen collection that ends up working mostly despite itself, and all because it does such a good job of showcasing the filmmaker's love for their subject, and convincing us to love it to.

The Blues Brothers, for the uninitiated, began life as a two-off SNL sketch by cast members Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in 1978. It's really quite difficult to say what in the hell the Blues Brothers were even supposed to be: watching their first two television appearances now, everything in your brain insists that this must be funny, and yet there's absolutely no joke to be found. Same with the 1978 album Briefcase Full of Blues, which is in no way a novelty cash in, though it sure as hell seems it ought to be: two white guys of modest talent pouring their heart and soul into classic blues, and it's not "good" exactly, and it's not pretending to be, but there's also no hint that we're supposed to be mocking it. What the Blues Brothers were, first and above all, were the vessel for Aykroyd to share with all of America his giddy, childlike love for blues and an entire generation of outstanding African-American musical geniuses who were on the verge of being forgotten before the success of the Blues Brothers launched them back into the stratosphere. The cast of The Blues Brothers includes, in smallish or cameo roles, Cab Calloway, James Brown, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, and Aretha Franklin, and it is not really an exaggeration to say that for at least a couple of names on that list, the only reason I can idly mention them here in 2016 is because Aykroyd put them into his huge hit movie in 1980. It is almost impossible to imagine a world in which Aretha Franklin is anything but one of the preeminent musical legends of contemporary pop culture; yet that was the world of 1980, when a failed attempt to redefine herself as a disco star had left Franklin all washed up, until this very movie started to rehabilitate her as a soul icon.

Anyway, that really is the point of The Blues Brothers; not its meandering, shaggy story, but the musical world it celebrates. It is a film in which Belushi's "Joliet" Jake Blues can have a spiritual event so profound that it causes a physical response while listening to Brown (as a charismatic preacher) perform "The Old Landmark" to a packed church; subtlety about its goals is not really a priority here. Which is why it's hard to take the movie to task for how effortful it is to get the music in place: it takes the creation of an entire subplot solely to come up with an excuse to have Franklin sing "Think" as a full MGM-style production number in a fried chicken restaurant on the South Side of Chicago, and even then, it feels pretty damn forced and arbitrary when it starts. The flipside, of course, is that it results in a a full MGM-style production number of Aretha fucking Franklin singing "Think". Slapdash filmmaking and all (in her New York Times review, Janet Maslin called out this specific number for its poor framing, which is correct, and Landis himself owned as much. She also claimed that the film would "have been more enjoyable if it had been mounted on a simpler scale", which is not correct to an extreme degree), it's the best musical number in any non-animated movie from the 1980s. Not a decade with a lot of musicals, sure, but the sheer gusto, the way that Landis and Aykroyd and Belushi stage the whole number as something between fannish appreciation for Franklin and acolytes worshiping their god in the flesh, the go-for-broke surreality with which the song breaks out into the casual, grimy realism of the film, these things all go into making it a masterpiece of the form regardless.

Every single time the movie comes across a song by a living, breathing legend, it adopts that same awestruck pose, even moreso in the extended cut, where most of the songs have been lengthened (incidentally, if we're to choose between a shaggy cut and a very shaggy cut, might as well go with the shaggier, longer one: the songs are the best part and they only get better with length, so why not watch the movie that stretches them out, even if most of the plot additions are almost entirely unnecessary). But the slaphappy "gee whiz!" attitude that permeates the musical numbers isn't limited to them. The whole movie has something of that same attitude, throughout: if the project is based in Aykroyd's adoration of the blues (as honed into a filmable screenplay by Landis), the execution feels like it owes a bit more to Belushi's charming, shrugging, "why the hell not?" comic libertinism. I have avoided mentioning the story at all, because it quickly goes off the rails into "this happened then THIS happened" territory: the short version is that after Jake gets out of prison, he and his brother Elwood (Aykroyd) learn that the Catholic orphanage where they grew up is going to be closed down due to non-payment of taxes. They decide to reunite the scattered members of their band, now living respectable lives, so that they can stage a benefit concert. The long version is the same, but with a a thick strain of religious sincerity and Catholic commitment to good works running throughout, and the narrative addition of the brothers being hunted by a vengeful woman (Carrie Fisher) with military-grade weaponry, the total might of the Illinois state police, a country band that got stuck with the Blues Brothers Band's enormous bar tab one night, and a passel of Illinois Nazis, whom we hate.

It's this latter chunk of narrative that resulted in The Blues Brothers setting the record at the time for most cars wrecked over the course of shooting a single movie's chase scenes, at 103. And if you recall the classic iteration of the old "put on a show to save the ____" musicals that are as old as sound cinema, you would perhaps be hard-pressed to figure out where any wrecked cars, let alone 103, fit into the formula. That's part of the ineffable magic of The Blues Brothers: it manages to combine a blues musical with a feature-length chase sequence and have it feel perfectly normal to do so. Much of that, I think, rests on the stars, who are very much the glue keeping this sprawling epic of nothing in particular together. The joke - in many ways, the only joke - is that Jake and Elwood are a pair of complete blanks who cannot be fussed by anything, speaking to each other in the same nasal tones of emotionally flat Chicago pragmatism no matter what is going around them. They are bothered by nothing and have no discernible personalities, until they start performing or hear others perform. And then they are writhing ecstatics, dancing and bobbing in strange, galvanising gestures. I don't know if this should work, especially over the course of such a long movie - the shorter cut of The Blues Brothers is still 133 minutes, a crazy amount of time for an aimless adventure comedy based on characters created for a sketch comedy show (and the Blues Brothers' appearances don't even rise to the level of narrative implied by the word "sketch") - but the thing is, it does work. Aykroyd and Belushi give everything to the movie, with their bone-dry irony standing as the best work either man ever did in a feature film (it might very well be the best thing Aykroyd did anywhere), and the film conforms itself around them, to gaze upon its crazy cartoon events with the same aura of "Well. That happened" detachment of its leads. Nothing else in Landis's comedy work is like this; hell, not much else in the 1980s is like this, with the vogue of the time very much for absurdist vulgarity and sarcasm, rather than the weird, almost alien dry comedy on display here. Which is perhaps why The Blues Brothers has aged so extremely well: it still doesn't feel like anything else, especially, with its weird mixture of enormously big-scale slapstick and the driest form of anti-humor. It's comedy playing a straight man off another straight man, with the rhythm of the film very carefully calibrated to let that unexpected combination flourish (the title cards introducing the lead actors and the film are so perfectly cut that you could teach it as an example of comedy editing at its best: unblinking, unsmiling, deadly serious, and therefor joyously absurd).

It is mystifying that a film so aggressively formless in its aesthetics and structure should end up feeling as tight and intentional as The Blues Brother does; there's a genuine sense of the miraculous going on here. It was an unrepeatable experiment, something we didn't need the evidence of the widely-despised 1998 sequel Blues Brothers 2000 to prove. Objectively, The Blues Brothers is a failure - and yet, watching it, every last thing about it works. I do not know where in the comic timing, the bravura action, the incandescent musical performances, or the grubby Chicago location photography, almost unnaturally realistic for everything else going on, the alchemy happens. I just know that despite everything, The Blues Brothers is one of the finest and most lasting pieces of mainstream pop entertainment from an entire decade.