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DVD Review: The Blues Brothers: 25th Anniversary Edition

By Glenn Abel

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photo So there's this Blues Brothers concert on DVD. The crowd roars, the band rocks, it's nighttime and the men in black are wearing sunglasses. Joliet Jake starts wailing the R&B classic "Hard to Handle" and, uh -- hold on.

Who is this guy screaming into the microphone? Sure as hell not John Belushi, the heavy metal fan who learned to sing sweet soul music at the feet of the masters. Not the John Belushi who somehow made bluesman growls sound smooth as the silver on a mic stand.

The tall man onstage appears to be dancing Dan Aykroyd all right, but on vocals we have one Jim Belushi, now eagerly wading into the crowd to soak up the boozy acclaim. It's the Blues Brothers 2005, every bit as bad as "The Blues Brothers 2000."

As a study in contrasts, the concert clip reminds viewers of how special John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd were back in the day. Two white TV comics who dared to sing the blues and, incredibly, came out king bees.

Most of the brand-new extras on "The Blues Brothers: 25th Anniversary Edition" aren't a whole lot better. Get a load of Aykroyd's 23-second intro to the movie, in which he says exactly nothing. Or the hasty tribute to John Belushi's career, crammed into 10 minutes.

The best DVD extra by far dates back to 1998: the hourlong documentary "Stories Behind the Making of the Blues Brothers." About as definitive as a history of the movie and band is going to get, the docu was ported over from the previous DVD.

Nonetheless, fans of Belushi, Aykroyd and the giants of black music they proudly showcased should race out to cop new copies of the 1980 musical-comedy classic.

The extended version of the movie (147 minutes) has long been available on DVD, but the theatrical (132 minutes) has never been out there. (Universal, in an odd retro move, put the films on flip sides of the same disc.)

Viewers who are in it just for the comedy probably could do without the extra 15 minutes, whose add-ons include a dubious scene of Elwood Blues quitting his day job and a drawn-out ending. But music lovers strike it rich -- a good chunk of the added time goes to expanding killer performances by James Brown, John Lee Hooker and Cab Calloway.

It gets better: The Dolby Digital 5.1 remix is a monster, about as good as it gets with pre-digital-era movies. Clear and strong vocals, fun surround action and big-bottom bass. (The theatrical version is in stereo.)

Brown's turn as a soul-stirring preacher goes from high to higher, the action stretched out a minute and a half. It's an astonishing sequence, probably the best in the film, as dance and gospel fuse in a spiritual frenzy. Brown's scorching vocals were recorded live. Turn it up and behold.

At full length, John Lee Hooker's street performance of "Boom Boom" will knock you right down. Originally slashed to 1:15, the number gets its due over full 3 minutes. Hooker is joined by Walter Horon and Pinetop Perkins in the film's only authentic blues.

The new version of Cab Calloway's onstage fantasy "Minnie the Moocher" preserves one of the century's best song-and-dance bits, all class and sass. The performance jumps from 2 minutes to 5. Director John Landis recalls that Calloway was "very unhappy" when told he couldn't perform his new disco version of the classic, but finally got into the spirit.

Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles' numbers are the same, with the lip-synching on the sloppy side, but with plenty of soul power. The performances are delightfully juiced by the new audio. Landis says these artists never perform songs the same way, making dubbing a nightmare.

A big part of the "Blues Brothers" story is how Belushi and Aykroyd lifted up their heroes. Hard to imagine today, but these hall of famers struggled in the era of disco and punk. "Except for Ray Charles, most of the people weren't working," Landis says.

"The careers of these performers were revitalized in so many cases," says Paul Shaffer, who helped recruit instrumental aces Steve Cropper and Donald "Duck" Dunn for the backup band. Franklin, who enjoyed great success in the mid-'80s, says the movie hipped a lot of people "who didn't know who I was" and broadened her audience.

Guitarist Cropper says Belushi and Aykroyd had "done more for the blues than anybody (in recent decades)."

Time has been kind to the giddy Blues Brothers performances as well. "They're like a beautiful Charley Patton record that's been played once too many times," says the actor John Goodman, a onetime Jake stand-in. "But you still want to hear it."

Cropper comes to the defense of Belushi, who took some heat from purists. "I think he sings a lot better than some artists."

The Blues Brothers weren't really about the blues, anyway. Most of their big numbers were covers of R&B and soul hits from artists such as Sam and Dave. "We were always a Chicago electric urbanized band fused with the Memphis/Stax-Volt movement," Aykroyd says. Theirs was the third-greatest R&B band of the time, after those of James Brown and Tina Turner, he says, no-brag-just-fact.

The video comes cloaked in muted colors and grain, but the murk fits with the grit of late-century Chicago. Those involved with the production repeatedly praise the city's cooperation as they filmed "very big gags" such as dropping a Pinto from a copter and racing cars downtown at 100 mph. Landis says the also film has historical value to the second city: "A lot of what we shot isn't there anymore."

Also not there anymore are leftover elements from production, meaning no deleted scenes or songs. Universal gets the blame for throwing out almost all of the extra footage back in the '80s. The extended footage now in the movie came from a lucky find -- a stolen print of Landis' first, short-lived theatrical cut. An audio version of "Sink the Bismark" from the country bar scene exists on the Internet but was not included on the disc.

Both versions of the film are in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The DVD retails for $22.98.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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