Let’s call it: Nation Lampoon’s Animal House and The Blues Brothers are the most influential comedies of their era, and two of the most influential comedies of all time. It’s doubtful anyone who makes comedies these days doesn’t revere these films, from Judd Apatow (considering Freaks and Geeks) to Todd Phillips (whose Road Trip is inarguably indebted).
The Blues Brothers was the first Saturday Night Live spin-off film, and Animal House launched John Belushi, which came out within weeks of Chevy Chase’s Foul Play, both of which showed that SNL could launch comedy stars, so everyone who came after owes to Animal House (which was a much bigger hit than Foul Play). And this is all due to one man: John Landis. Our reviews of the Blu-rays of Animal House and Blues Brothers follow after the jump.
Animal House is a perfect comedy. It holds many of the great archetypes that would come to pepper comedies for years to come, but the central conceit is old hat – something the Marx Brothers did all the time, and it’s this: pit good natured but carefree and morally questionable characters against the snobs who see themselves as better than everyone. Here it’s the Delta House frat brotehrs that are the slobs, led by Otter (Tim Matheson) and Boone (Peter Riegert) – the smart ones – and are joined by mercurial troublemakers like Bluto (Belushi) and D-Day (Bruce McGill). Pinto (Thomas Hulce) and Flounder (Stephen Furst) are the pledges, and our are guides to this world. They maintain a certain innocence, while their fellow frat brothers are much more questionable. They’re up against a rival fraternity and Dean Wormer (John Vernon), who want them off campus as soon as possible.
In some ways the film is a series of sketches, with a number of parties, and seductions – like when Otter decides that he can use the death of a young woman at an all-girl’s school to get his friends some dates for the night. It’s the perfect use of the characters that we are with them for this entire scene – even if the date involves some race panic (though it’s as much about white people feeling uncomfortable around blacks, and the nature of segregation than simple racism). But then the film builds to Delta being in trouble, and a beating someone didn’t deserve, which leads to one of the most joyous conclusions of a comedy in cinema.
Virtually every other line in the film is quoteable, and has been since release, while Belushi is such an amusing slob. From devouring a buffet, to pouring mustard on himself, it’s his defining role, and helped by him not having to do any heavy lifting. But everyone shines, and it feels real-ish – the addition of a troubled relationship is part of the fabric, not some desperate attempt to make it four-quadrant. It’s also very raunchy, with lots of blessed nudity and profanity. I grew up watching this film, and it still delights. But more than anything else, it’s Landis’s classical approach that gives the film it’s oomph. It’s smart comedy direction that’s never static, but knows when to let its players go. His sense of composition and how he lets things play makes it feel like a real movie – it doesn’t feel improvisational, and there’s always a sense that everything is chosen for the moment. You don’t get that from a lot of modern comedies.
Universal’s Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 surround. Landis spoke about his concern for the transfer, as originally it was too cleaned up, but this version looks as true to the print that recently screened at the New Beverly. Detail is perfect, and the colors and grain are just right. The film comes with a PIP commentary, which is mostly made up of the old interviews done for previous releases, while there’s a guide to the film’s soundtrack that’s also a PIP feature. The rest of the supplements are ported from the previous releases. There’s a making of (45 min.) and a “Where are they Now” (23 min.) joke video. There’s also clips from the Scene-it game (25 min.) and the film’s theatrical trailer.
The Blues Brothers is way shaggier. After Animal House made an insane fortune for Universal, John Landis was given the keys to the kingdom, and so he did what he wanted, which was to make a car chase, action musical. It was as if Landis wanted to prove that huge scale can work in comedy (or perhaps he was paying homage to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World). It’s an indulgent work, but the passion play of a born entertainer.
Jake (John Belushi) and Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) Blues are musicians who can’t help but get in trouble with the law. Jake’s just out of prison, and he wants to get the band back together. But this mission is ordained as Sister Mary Stigmata (Kathleen Freeman) needs $5,000 to keep the orphanage open, and so the guys know have a mission from god to perform their way to a large payout.
And so they assemble their team in a series of events that allow for Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin to have musical numbers. And honest to god musical numbers is what they are – background people suddenly become musicians and choreographed dancers. And with Cab Calloway and James Brown in the cast, there’s a number of these sorts of moments. The boys also get to play as well with their old SNL backing band. All the while they’re being chased by a mystery woman (Carrie Fisher), State Troopers (headed up by John Candy) and the Illinois Nazi party (led by Henry Gibson).
Though it doesn’t have the structure of Animal House, it’s still a brilliant piece of entertainment, if you can get on its wavelength (that is: have a tolerance for musical numbers, which I love, but you never know). Every major set piece has great moments and jokes, while – like Animal House – the film is still quoted today with regularity.
This is one of Aykroyd’s rare great leading roles, but he’s also counted on to do things he does well: act smart and sing, while Belushi drives the film with his energy. He was supposedly very unreliable on set, but he’s the sort who can get away with it because he was such a great comic force. But the star here is Landis’s sensibilities, from the staging of the car chases (which become hilarious in their scale) and the musical sequences.
On Blu-ray the film is available with both the theatrical (133 min.) and extended cuts (148 min.) of the film. I prefer the theatrical version, if only because it’s a little better when it’s tighter. Both are presented in widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 surround. Channel separation is bit more pronounced in the musical numbers, but likely that has to do with the remixing. Supplements are replicated from the previous releases. There’s “Stories Behind the Making of The Blues Brothers” (56 min) is the making of, while “Transposing the Music” (15 min) focuses on the band, and “Remembering John” (10 min) focuses on the genius of John Belushi. The latter two feature overlap from the longer documentary, so it’s just as easy to simply watch that. Also included is the theatrical trailer.