The Blues Brothers (1980)
The Blues Brothers manages to be a great movie without being a very good movie. On a rational, critical level the film is difficult to defend. It's overstuffed with too many characters and too many subplots (Nazis? Nuns? Old blues man cameos? Car chases? Country bars? Concerts? Used musical instrument shops? Car chases? Gospel numbers? Car chases?). The two main characters, Jake and Elwood Blues have purpose they're on a mission from God but no personality. They're a big pile of coolness, musical chops, and little else. They don't even have eyes, or if they do we never see them, since they wear dark sunglasses constantly, even indoors, even at night, even to sleep. So you have characters you don't especially care about, in a story that makes little sense, in a movie that's too long. By any standard measure, that should make it a forgettable movie.
And yet, it is a great movie, a movie I have seen dozens of times, a movie I can quote from memory, a movie I am always pleasantly surprised by when I return to it after a few years away. It is too long, or at least at two hours and thirteen minutes it seems like it should be too long for a Saturday Night Live sketch blown up to feature length. Hell, calling it a sketch may be giving it too much credit; John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd never did comedy on SNL as The Blues Brothers, they played blues music as the "characters" (really just the costumes black suit, white shirt, black tie, black hat, black sunglasses and the goofy dancing) with Howard Shore and the show's house band. And yet somehow the movie isn't too long at two hours and thirteen minutes. It's too short. I've determined this via a highly scientific method. Here's how it works. Some home video releases contain an extended cut that runs fifteen more minutes, and if you let me choose which I would prefer to watch I'd pick the one with the extra footage every single time.
Characters would be nice, but that was the remarkable thing about John Belushi: he didn't need a character to be worth watching onscreen. Quick: describe Bluto from Animal House using words that don't also apply to Belushi? What was his life like before college? What are his goals? How'd he come to Delta House? Who's his favorite Delta? Why does he like wearing togas so much? The vagueness with which Bluto was drawn didn't stop him from becoming maybe the single most beloved college student in cinema history. The reason why is a single word, and it rhymes with "Smelushi." The same applies to Jake Blues. Here inscrutableness is written right into the character. But there's something so utterly charismatic about Belushi that he makes the character's lack of definition seem like intentional mystery rather than a screenplay deficiency. We may not know too much about Jake, but Belushi sure seems to.
The most famous line in the film, the one everyone on Earth knows, even people who've never seen the movie or know who the Blues Brothers are, is the one about how no one can stop them because they're on a mission from God. God, in this case, is named John Lee Hooker and Cab Calloway and Aretha Franklin and Sam and Dave and Ray Charles. For Jake and Elwood (and, I suspect, for Belushi and Dan Aykroyd), music is religion, a point made with perfect clarity when Jake has his evangelical epiphany in the middle of James Brown gospel tune. Though the narrative finds Jake and Elwood searching for $5,000 to save the orphanage they grew up in, their real task is to share the music they love with their film's audience. They're musical missionaries and their means of conversion is the series of exuberant numbers featuring many of the artists mentioned above. Music in this film has a power akin to demonic possession: people can't resist it, succumb to it, as when Ray Charles starts playing "Shake a Tail Feather" and passersby burst into a synchronized, choreographed dance.
The whole film operates that way. Passion outweighs precision. Energy trumps efficiency. The Blues Brothers have a complete and total disregard for rules and the film shares that spirit. It breaks just about every rule of "good" moviemaking. No screenwriting coach or studio executive or focus group could manufacture The Blues Brothers. It had to come from a couple guys who felt so strongly about this stuff that they were ready to proselytize for it any way they could. The film stands as a testament to their great success.