Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

More tired than wired case file #60: Blues Brothers 2000

Illustration for article titled More tired than wired case file #60: Blues Brothers 2000

My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.

At the height of his creative powers, a young Dan Aykroyd created something that gripped the public’s imagination like few pop-culture properties before or since. Decades later, this institution looms as large as it did when it was first crafted.

The key props of Aykroyd’s brainchild belong in the Smithsonian, if they’re not there already. His creation is damn near the official blockbuster of the city where it takes place, but its scope is both lasting and universal. Aykroyd’s creation isn’t just essential Americana; it also functions as an ambassador of American pop culture throughout the globe. I have seen goddamned statues paying homage to this landmark in various cities of Europe. Success (usually) breeds success, so Aykroyd was intent on continuing this beloved saga even after crucial personnel died very public deaths, and logic and sanity and decency all dictated that he should leave well enough alone and maybe think up some new ideas.


I’m talking about the Blues Brothers (and The Blues Brothers), but I could just as easily be talking about Ghostbusters, another brilliant creation of Aykroyd’s that has somehow only gotten bigger with time. The immense popularity of Aykroyd creations like Ghostbusters, the Coneheads, and the Blues Brothers gave him a currency Hollywood is very comfortable with: the power to return to something that has made an enormous amount of money before, and could make an enormous amount of money again.

But Aykroyd’s eagerness to rehash past triumphs betray a certain professional desperation. Anyone who feels the need to slap a prosthetic cone on their head and resurrect characters barely substantial enough to sustain a five-minute Saturday Night Live sketch several years after leaving the show is not operating from a position of strength. As Aykroyd’s career limped along following Ghostbusters—a victim of egregiously terrible choices like Exit To Eden, My Stepmother Is An Alien, Loose Cannons, Getting Away With Murder, and Nothing But Trouble—he began revisiting past triumphs roughly every five years. (Alongside, it should be noted, smaller roles in prestige pictures like Driving Miss Daisy, Chaplin, and The House Of Mirth.)

So the enormous success of Ghostbusters in 1984 was followed by 1989’s considerably less-beloved Ghostbusters II. Four years later, Aykroyd resurrected the Coneheads for an effort that was much more successful as a promotion for mediocre sub sandwiches than it was as motion-picture entertainment.

Five years after that, a floundering Aykroyd resurrected another old triumph when he decided that despite the deaths of John Belushi, John Candy, and Cab Calloway, he would bring back the Blues Brothers for one more exercise in screamingly loud automotive slapstick. Plans for a Blues Brothers sequel should have died with John Belushi, its most essential ingredient. After Belushi died, there was only a Blues Brother. Aykroyd was reduced to tapping James, the worst Belushi, for a new incarnation of the group, but “scheduling conflicts” kept him from being able to appear. When James fucking Belushi opts out of starring in a sequel to a massive iconic blockbuster, that’s the universe’s way of telling you it’s time to give up.


The original Blues Brothers movie, which Aykroyd co-wrote with director John Landis, at least augmented the strange semi-joke that is the Blues Brothers with a premise that was as effective as it was simple. On Saturday Night Live, it’s hard to pin down exactly what the Blues Brothers joke even was: the incongruity of young white men performing music associated with ancient black musicians? In The Blues Brothers, the humor heightened as Jake and Elwood destroy much of the state of Illinois in their mad quest to save the orphanage where they were raised. No matter how crazy and over-the-top things got, the stars seldom wavered from their winning default mode of deadpan under-reaction.

The Blues Brothers was nostalgic as well, but that nostalgia focused on the dazzling gallery of long-in-the-tooth blues legends it showcased. Blues Brothers 2000 is similarly nostalgic for black music’s past, but it’s even more nostalgic about its own intensely white exploration of black music. John Belushi, somewhat ridiculously, has received a posthumous promotion from a combustible ball of energy performing black music as an inexplicably lucrative and venerable stunt, into one of the legends of black music the film never stops mourning. While mourning is healthy and cathartic in real life, it’s deadly in a light, goofy comedy.


Blues Brothers 2000 opens with a dedication to Belushi, Cab Calloway, and John Candy. That’s the honorable thing to do, but it also serves a reminder of all the would-be franchise has lost, and how dearly these three legends are missed. It’s rare that a film’s opening dedication doubles as an argument as to why it shouldn’t exist.

The credits that follow provide some pretty solid reasons for the film, however. Belushi, Candy, and Calloway may all be gone, but there were a lot of soul, blues, and funk legends still alive in the late ’90s (B.B King, Bo Diddley, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Isaac Hayes, Billy Preston, and many more), and Blues Brothers 2000 seems to have snagged every last one.


Blues Brothers 2000 opens with Aykroyd’s Elwood Blues strutting out of prison in his official uniform of a suit, hat, and sunglasses. He’s no longer the skinny young man he was when the first film was released nearly 20 years earlier. Time and experience have softened him, and the film follows suit. The manic, demented coke energy of the original has been replaced by a sensibility I like to call “dad joke with a harmonica.”

From the beginning, what’s missing feels more important than what’s there. There’s unexpected melancholy watching Aykroyd walk from the prison to the road by himself, an old gospel song scoring his pain. He seems hopelessly, poignantly alone, and the fact that Aykroyd and Belushi were such partners on screen and off just makes Aykroyd’s loneliness seem sadder. The film then has Frank Oz return as a prison warden to inform Elwood that his brother Jake is dead. There are Holocaust dramas that open on a more upbeat note. We then learn that the father figure Calloway played in the first film is dead as well, but he had a hitherto unknown child named Cabel Chamberlain, who will grow up to be Joe Morton.


But before Aykroyd can meet the son of a man who was like a father to him, he is inexplicably paired with a wisecracking moppet with a Chicago accent as thick as a slice of Lou Malnati’s deep dish, played by J. Evan Bonifant, in the role that launched him to anonymity. The 10-year-old Buster is the first of a series of wildly inadequate would-be replacements for John Belushi, but he will be far from the last. Elwood then sets about putting the band back together, as we’re introduced to two more people who won’t make anyone forget John Belushi: Morton’s uptight cop with a secret (that secret being that he’s actually the son of a musician) and bartender “Mighty Mack” played by John Goodman. Goodman is a universally beloved performer who can do anything, with the notable exception of being an adequate replacement for John Belushi in a Blues Brothers movie.

Elwood recruits band members and enemies with equal enthusiasm. He accidentally ends up antagonizing the Illinois police, the Russian mob, and neo-Nazis when not favoring audiences with The Return Of Bruno-level renditions of blues standards. The Blues Brothers and The Blues Brothers played a big role in popularizing blues and other forms of black music, but at a formidable price. For all of the musical talent in the sequel cast, it’s worth noting that the first two numbers are performed by Aykroyd and Goodman. It isn’t long until Buster and Mack are duded up in official Blues Brothers gear. The filmmakers clearly hope to make up in quantity what they lack in quality when it comes to Blues Brothers. Yet these new additions can’t help but feel like ersatz members of a more or less fake blues band.


Aretha Franklin returns to sing “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” in a sluggish production number that, like so much of the film, feels like a cross between a rerun and an outtake left on the cutting room floor from the original. We’re then favored with appearances from a plethora of blues and soul luminaries, including the all-time killer roster of black music ringers that constitute the Blues Brothers Band. Elwood is a weirdly passive figure here, reduced in scene after scene to dancing very slowly in the background in tandem with the fake new Blues Brothers while black musical legends (and, also, briefly popular white-boy blues guitar wunderkind Jonny Lang) strut their stuff in the foreground.

Halfway through the film, the second part of the film’s achingly simple plot reveals itself. First, Elwood must get the band back together; then he needs to head down to Mississippi to enter a high-stakes battle of the bands judged by a magical voodoo crooner played by Erykah Badu, whose regal presence steals the film. So in the third act, the action moves from the Midwest to the South. It’s nice that the filmmakers acknowledge the birthplace of the blues and the sacred cradle of American black music, but otherwise their understanding of life on the bayou seems derived entirely from Scooby-Doo episodes about the gang investigating voodoo-related zombie outbreaks.


Ideally, Blues Brothers 2000 would develop an unstoppable momentum as the band’s enemies pile up and the automotive pursuit grows more frenzied, as in the original, but the sequel is hopelessly sluggish. It doesn’t need to be 124 minutes long, but introducing all 47 new Blues Brothers eats up an awful lot of screen time. The climactic battle of the bands is the film’s uncontested highlight, in no small part because it does what Blues Brothers movies do best: Celebrate the blues with geeky, unabashed fervor. It is joyous in a way the rest of the film is not. Blues Brothers 2000 is certainly not the worst movie I’ve ever seen, but I’d have a hard time thinking of a movie that’s less essential, or that has less of a reason to exist.

When Aykroyd is afforded an opportunity to resurrect his hits, the results tend to feel an awful lot like Ghostbusters 2, Coneheads, and Blues Brothers 2000. So maybe it’s not such a tragedy that the keys to the Ghostbusters franchise have been yanked out of his hands and given to people younger and hungrier, like Aykroyd was when he first brought Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters to a grateful world.


Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure

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