Blues Brothers 2000 (1998)

D: John Landis
S: Dan Aykroyd, John Goodman, The Blues Brothers Band

Disappointing, much belated sequel to the 1980 musical comedy which plays much more on the music than the comedy. The result is little more than an extended sequence of musical numbers which seem designed to promote the soundtrack album rather than suggest the affection for the music which motivated its makers in the first place.

Eighteen years after the events in The Blues Brothers, Elwood J. Blues (Dan Aykroyd) is released from prison. In the movie's one enjoyable moment, he stands impassively waiting for his brother Jake for an entire day before being told by warden Frank Oz that Jake has passed on. He then attempts to put the band back together for another comeback concert and faces the amassed forces of the Illinois State Police, White Power guerrillas and the Russian Mafia.

This distended musical epic was a better idea than it is a film. The Blues Brothers was not a financial or critical success on its original release, but has since gained a strong cult following which has resulted in it paying for itself several times over in video and soundtrack sales. Fans have been (unwisely) crying for a sequel for years, and co-writers John Landis and Aykroyd have finally risen to the challenge of picking up where they left off. With the benefit of most of the surviving cast from the previous film (including the members of the now legendary Blues Brothers Band) and the prospect of the same hands who told the tale the first time now following it up, there might perhaps have been a faint hope that the result would be something worth seeing (though somewhere at the back of our minds we knew it wouldn't work). But unfortunately, the peculiar combination of elements which made The Blues Brothers fun for the attuned does not seem to have be replicated.

Perhaps the contrivance is the problem. While it is interesting to see what might happen to Elwood Blues on discovering the death of his brother, this is not a dramatic film. We're not about to explore themes of grief and loss here, and we don't expect it. But we are also then left with one half of a particularly effective team. The dynamic minimalist interplay between John Belushi and Aykroyd was one of the things which made the first film funny, especially their insistence on silence and on ignoring or seeming not to notice the cataclysms they were unleashing or which were being unleashed upon them. This time, Elwood is much more verbal and visibly reactive. He also lacks a counterbalance in the form of Belushi, and though the film pedals furiously to work in not one, not two, but three new 'brothers', none of them seems to match Elwood in the simple silences which defined him last time out.

Thus the comic centre is unbalanced, and Landis' direction is equally so. Like its main characters, the first film's poker faced blend of outrageous stunt work and simple visual humour peppered with energetic musical numbers resulted in a particular feel which is not present here. Despite the presence of performers as talented and perennial as Aretha Franklin and James Brown reprising their fictional roles from the first film, the musical numbers do not explode quite so organically from the screen. The story is much weaker precisely because it tries to be stronger, incorporating more characters and more sub plots (including what frequently seems a cynical move including a ten year old boy in the action), in between musical set pieces. Lacking the simple comic effectiveness of the likes of Jake and Elwood's assault on Mr.Fabulous' restaurant or the frustrations of Henry Gibson's smug Nazi, the story is much more of a 'filler' this time round, and does not involve us to the same extent.

There are also some over the top excursions into pure fantasy which actually detract from the entertainment. Animated skeletons bursting from a stormy sky during a musical number, the transformation of a cop into a Blues Brother during James Brown's 'sermon' (in the first film, Jake 'saw the light', but Elwood, importantly, did not), and the pantomime magic act surrounding a 'voodoo' witch are bizarre moments which break the rules of the world established first time round and which seems to be recreated at the opening of the film and would be presumed to be in place given the aims of the talent involved. This is not to say there were no outrageous scenes in The Blues Brothers, but the po-faced handling was one of the distinguishing characteristics (the fall of the Nazi car to The Ride of the Valkyries, Carrie Fisher's continued assaults on Belushi).

It is probably fair comment to observe that criticising Blues Brothers 2000 via constant reference to its predecessor is not to give it due credit as a work in its own right. However, I would argue that the film invites comparisons not least of all because of its attempts to replicate the original in many of its elements. But it is a weak musical fantasy at best if viewed in a vacuum, and it is certainly not funny. It is overlong and ends on a weird anti-narrative emblematic shot which does not resolve the story at all, if that has become important to you in the course of the film.

At the end of the day, this is a film you will enjoy for its music or not at all. Many of the numbers are elaborately staged, but it is the simple pleasure of seeing several musical legends performing (often all at once) which could redeem the film for some. Of course the same comment was made of The Blues Brothers, and so it is conceivable that this film could develop a following, or at least not kill off the one upon which it trades. But from an admirer of The Blues Brothers who is nonetheless willing to acknowledge its limitations, this film cannot rank as anything but a disappointment, even though my hopes were not high.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.