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Posts Tagged ‘Dan Aykroyd’

I have a pretty good memory when it comes to films: I can probably tell you which cinema I first saw every film of the last twenty years in, and in some cases which screen within that cinema. When it comes to things I have only seen on TV, well, then I can probably have a good guess at when and where. So – Dawn of the Dead would have been on videotape, on a long Monday afternoon just before Christmas 1997, The Legend of Boggy Creek would have been on a Thursday evening in the autumn of 1981, and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed would have been on a Saturday morning in the summer of 1988 (again, videotaped).

The Blues Brothers would have come my way in the early summer of 1989, I think, on the same VHS as a recording of Beverley Hills Cop, but in this case I have no idea why. I didn’t record it, a friend of mine did, and he ended up lending it to me. I don’t know why; I wasn’t particularly aware of the film and certainly wasn’t burning to see it.  At the time I don’t think it had quite the same cult status it has since acquired. But my friend was (and remains) someone of strong enthusiasms, particularly when it comes to comedy and music, and I can imagine him foisting it on me with his usual energy.

The film (directed and co-written by John Landis) is amiable and straightforward, anyway, opening with the reunion of the titular siblings when one of them (John Belushi) is collected from prison by the other (Dan Aykroyd), having just done time for robbery (the crime was necessitated by the need to pay the members of their band, for – as you might expect – the Blues brothers are musicians).

Well, the nun in charge at the orphanage where the duo grew up is unimpressed by their moral development after all these years, but a more serious problem is looming: the orphanage has a considerable outstanding tax bill and will be closed down unless it is settled in a matter of days. Nevertheless, this all seems a bit out of the brothers’ hands until Jake Blues (Belushi) has a religious experience at the local church and realises that God has given him the mission of redeeming himself by saving the orphanage. All the brothers have to do is get their old band back together and play a fundraiser to raise the money the nuns need! What could be simpler?

Quite a few things, to be honest, as circumstances conspire to put the Blues brothers and their associates on the wrong side of a large number of people, including the Chicago police department, the American branch of the Nazi party, a bad-tempered country and western band, and Jake’s ex-fiance (Carrie Fisher), who keeps popping up and trying to kill them with military-spec weapons. But they are on a mission from God…

The cult status of The Blues Brothers is not really surprising given it contains such an eclectic mixture of styles, genres, and people. It’s a knockabout, somewhat profane comedy; it contains some impressively spectacular stunts and chases; it’s a musical. It is also generally accepted to be the only movie derived from Saturday Night Live it’s worth bothering with. As well as Belushi and Aykroyd, the cast features names like John Candy, James Brown, Cab Calloway, and Aretha Franklin. It feels very much like a bizarre one-off in the annals of cinema.

Well – maybe, but I think there is something significant in one of the final scenes of the  film, in which the brothers foist their tax money onto a hapless clerk. The clerk is played by one S. Spielberg, before he grew his beard, only four films into his own directorial career at the time. At the time the most recent one was an only moderately-successful comedy entitled 1941, in which both Aykroyd and Belushi prominently appeared (without ever really sharing a scene).

The Blues Brothers doesn’t have the complex, multi-stranded structure of 1941, nor are most of its gags quite as sophisticated – but, on the other hand, it doesn’t have the relentless, breathless pace that can make 1941 an offputting experience for the uninitiated. But the two films do share a similar kind of freewheeling brashness, almost an interest in taking all the machinery and techniques of late 70s film-making and putting them to work in the name of comedy. The Blues Brothers has a kind of swagger and playfulness that seems to me to be very much like that of 1941 – but where the Spielberg movie often feels like it’s on the verge of turning into a cartoon, The Blues Brothers says goodbye to the real world early on (probably around the time Carrie Fisher attacks the duo with a rocket launcher and they blithely pick themselves up and go on about their business).

By the end of the movie, Landis’ more-is-better approach, while initially exhilarating – vast numbers of police cars being trashed, and so on – is beginning to have diminishing returns, but I would still probably say the film peaks about the right time. It does know when to go pedal to the metal with slapstick comedy and when to take a break and include a musical number.

It’s hard to shake the impression, with this kind of film, that it’s basically just the product of a deep-seated desire on the part of comedians to be proper rock stars. It’s probably to the film’s credit that Belushi and Aykroyd don’t do any real singing themselves until nearly halfway through, and when they do it’s in a comedy sequence (the band find themselves having to perform to a surly and unappreciative country and western crowd and have to make some unusual song choices). Before this all the heavy musical lifting is done by supremely qualified guest stars like James Brown, John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, in what are mostly diegetic song sequences.

Certainly it’s the music which helps to make the film as successful and entertaining as it is – and here again we find ourselves considering the film’s origins at the end of the seventies, a decade which had seen the beginnings of a new kind of Hollywood. Many great films from the seventies and early eighties indulge in homages to the golden age of American film-making – it’s there in the Casablanca-style trappings of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the Howard Hawks references in some early John Carpenter films. For all the profanity and occasional crassness of The Blues Brothers, there’s something similar going on here in the way it celebrates classic American music, up to the point of giving Cab Calloway his own number.

So maybe The Blues Brothers isn’t such a one-off as it first appears: it connects to a number of trends and movements in mainstream American cinema of the time – of young directors pushing the boundaries of genre, while still retaining a kind of reverence for the past. Now it feels like a bit of a period piece itself: Dan Aykroyd still looks young and thin, while John Belushi… well, whether or not it’s indeed better to burn out than fade away, Belushi seems to have lived as though he believed it. The Blues Brothers is possibly the best known of the films he left behind, and whatever its flaws as a movie, it’s an enormously likeable memorial.

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‘Madness conquers Hollywood!’ said the poster for the French release of Steven Spielberg’s 1979 film, 1941. It’s a bit unclear as to whether this is a description of the plot of the movie or a criticism of the thought processes involved in the thing being made in the first place; it’s arguably equally accurate as both. This is the early Spielberg movie that most people don’t think of and haven’t seen, and the one that tends to be described as a failure despite the fact it made nearly $100 million at the box office (three times its budget). Personally I always think of the film as a kind of folie de grandeur, for want of a better expression: it’s deeply mystifying that a film like this one ever got made, but I’m very glad it was.

Stanley Kubrick said the biggest mistake Spielberg made with 1941 was telling everybody it was supposed to be a comedy, and the film certainly doesn’t start like one, with a mock-grave caption describing the somewhat febrile mood of panic and tension gripping the United States in the days following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. It soon becomes apparent that this is absolutely not your typical Spielberg film about the Second World War – a young woman out for a swim in the Pacific Ocean off the southern Californian coast is startled to find a Japanese submarine surfacing beneath her – not only is the scene directed as a spoof of the opening of Jaws, but John Williams reuses the theme from that movie, and it’s even the same actress (Susan Backlinie).

We then proceed to a scene between the commander of the sub (Toshiro Mifune) and a German advisor (Christopher Lee) discussing their situation (in Japanese and German respectively) and the commander’s desire to strike at a significant target in the continental US so they can return to Japan with honour. Both these movie legends play the entire film almost completely straight, no matter what else is going on around them (in this scene, for instance, there is a naked woman clinging to the periscope above them while they talk). It certainly makes a change from the gurning and screaming which is the preferred style of performance of nearly everyone else in the film as it goes on.

Well, anyway. 1941 has a huge number of characters and nearly as many subplots. In addition to Mifune and Lee trying to work out where their sub is and deliver an appropriately crushing attack on America, the film also concerns a young man trying to stop a soldier from stealing his girlfriend, an unhinged fighter pilot (John Belushi) trying to track down non-existent Japanese planes, a mild-mannered homeowner who has an anti-aircraft gun deposited in his garden by the army, an army officer trying to lure his superior’s secretary into a plane for, ahem, personal reasons (she is an aviophiliac, for want of a better word), and a motor pool sergeant (Dan Aykroyd) and his crew who are trying to maintain some kind of order. Courtesy of some ingenious plotting (the script is by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, who of course went on to write Back to the Future), all these elements bounce off each other as the film proceeds (it essentially takes place within a single day) and the situation in Los Angeles gets more and more chaotic.

It is, if anything, a disaster movie played for laughs, having the same kind of structure – the difference being that here the disaster is largely self-inflicted (the first time I saw Independence Day, itself an heir to the 70s disaster tradition in many ways, I remember thinking ‘This reminds me of 1941‘, and I was not the only one to spot the resemblance). 1941 takes all the technical advances of late-70s cinema and puts them to the purpose of trying to be funny.

Set in 1941 and made in 1979, this movie is of course now closer to the time it depicts than the present day, and it is perhaps inevitable that it feels a little dated in some ways. Much of the comedy is of a broad, early Saturday Night Live kind, unsurprisingly given Belushi and Aykroyd found fame on SNL – there is a lot of Belushi’s bull-in-a-china-shop slapstick, in particular. There is a wilful irreverence about the war in this film which is not at all what one would expect, and which indeed made it somewhat controversial at the time – Spielberg offered John Wayne a role in it at one point, and Wayne not only refused but told him he shouldn’t make the film at all as it was un-American and unpatriotic. With Spielberg so well established as a Hollywood grandee these days, it’s fascinating to revisit a time when he was still a subversive young rebel.

In other ways, of course, this is very recognisably a Spielberg movie – there is music from John Williams (he contributes one of his more rousing marches), a strong sense of nostalgia, and of course the usual technical mastery. The appearance of Backlinie, reprising her role from Jaws, isn’t the only in-joke in the film, either – Lucille Benson appears in virtually the same role she had in Duel, made nearly a decade earlier, playing a gas station owner saddled with an awkward customer.

Perhaps it’s this sort of thing which has led many people to label 1941 as self-indulgent – Spielberg, fresh from the massive success of Jaws and Close Encounters, being given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted, with the result being an overblown mess (‘Spielberg playing with cinema like a child with a toy train set’ was one comment). I don’t think it’s remotely fair to call 1941 a mess, for it manages to tell a complex story with a minimum of confusion. If there is a problem with the film, it’s that it’s a comedy which is not very funny – at least, not consistently.

There’s a relentless, manic quality to the film which eventually becomes a little exhausting rather than completely enjoyable, and it does require you to accept that the characters do absurd and ridiculous things for no other reason than that they’re supposed to be funny (a character on air raid warden duty takes a ventriloquist’s dummy with him). It almost anticipates Airplane! in its belief that if you bombard the audience continuously with jokes, enough of them will be funny for the film to succeed – and I suppose this is true, for this is a movie which never fails to entertain me. This may partly be because I just enjoy the fact that so much talent and so many resources have been devoted to bringing such an absurdly silly story to the screen, but as well as being a lavish piece of movie-making, 1941 is filled with colour and movement and action. The hectic pace may be a problem, but if the film slowed down for a moment it would surely fail entirely.

As I say, 1941 is a film I have always liked, even if Spielberg considers it to have not completely worked, and steered clear of comedy as a result (a shame, especially as he was supposedly planning to do a movie with the Goodies before this one came out). It’s hit and miss as a comedy, but as a technical achievement and above all as a spectacle, it has lots to offer.

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