The Case Against Aykroyd

It’s hard to believe, but after years of speculation and false starts, there is going to be a third Ghostbusters movie, featuring brand new characters played by some of the hottest young comedians in Hollywood: Ben Stiller, Will Smith, and Chris Farley.

That was the news in 1997, when Dan Aykroyd transitioned into a new phase of his career: One-man Ghostbusters 3 rumor mill (along with Club Owner and Mystical Vodka Salesman). For the next two decades, the news surrounding a second Ghostbusters sequel would cycle through the world in much the same way: Aykroyd would speak at length about the story and how far along they were in the (often non-existent) development process, inevitably roping the newest comedy stars of that particular year (Jack Black, Seth Rogen, Bill Hader, and for some reason, Alyssa Milano) into his tangled hype, with public responses ranging from committed optimism (director Ivan Reitman, co-writer/co-star Harold Ramis), to hostile indifference (Bill “Groundhog Day Ghostbustin’-ass” Murray), to flattered denial (most of the rumored young comedians).

Now it seems to finally be happening, though, in a manner that seemed like a joke mere months ago: Paul Feig is directing and co-writing a remake starring his Bridesmaids actresses Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy, along with Saturday Night Live’s Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon. While the notion of an all-female Ghostbusting crew may seem like a gimmick, it has resulted in a finished script and a full cast, which is more than can be said for any of the previous attempts to revive the franchise since the first sequel in 1989. It’s really happening this time, and it’s really happening without Dan Aykroyd. And while the internet has shed its share of tears over Its childhood and the sexual assault thereof by Lady Ghostbusters, I posit that the alternative, the film that Aykroyd was selling us on for decades, would have undoubtedly been worse. Because we’ve already seen that alternative, and it’s called Blues Brothers 2000.

Before we go any further, let’s consider the impact of Dan Aykroyd’s personal obsessions on the last four decades of pop culture. Post-war blues and R&B, comic book super cars, demolition derbys, Jack Webb-style cop talk–Aykroyd made a hash of these in the Blues Brothers script, the first script to be allowed to film in Chicago since 1969’s Medium Cool featured the furious protests of the ’68 Democratic National Convention. The movie’s runaway success made Chicago safe for the next 35 years of cinema heroes, from Ferris Bueller to Dr. Richard Kimble to Batman. Aykroyd added his amateur parapsychology, his love of arcane scientific jargon, and a bit of the Marx Brothers into the mix for Ghostbusters, a film that, though mostly filmed in Los Angeles and mostly starring comedians from Chicago, has become one of the iconic New York movies of all time. It inspired a slew of knockoffs hoping to recapture its effortless mix of comedy and high-gloss special effects, from the successful Men in Black franchise to the decidedly less successful Evolution (directed by Ivan Reitman in 2001), Ben Stiller’s misbegotten and ill-timed The Watch, and even the unbeloved Ghostbusters II.

But at the very least, Ghostbusters II had the participation of the full original cast and creative team, a bigger budget, and was produced within a reasonable amount of time since the first one. Blues Brothers 2000 had none of those things.

If there had ever been plans for a sequel to The Blues Brothers, other than the 1980 album Made in America, those plans certainly evaporated upon the 1982 death of John Belushi. The act was Aykroyd’s idea from the start, but he was canny enough to put Belushi’s ex-con ‘Joliet’ Jake Blues front and center as lead singer of the band and main character of the script, while his monosyllabic harp-blowing Elwood acted as emcee and sidekick. Belushi’s so-so voice and Aykroyd’s so-so harmonica were buoyed by their boundless energy, a killer band of session players and legit soul artists, as well as the feeling that none of this ought to be taken very seriously.

But something happened after Belushi’s death: it began to be taken seriously. Very seriously, in fact. In 1992 Aykroyd co-founded the first House of Blues club in Cambridge, MA. The chain, with 12 locations around the country, is currently owned by Live Nation but Aykroyd’s name and image are still strongly associated with the brand. 1994 saw a TV special titled The Best of the Blues Brothers, which featured Aykroyd and others looking back on the act, but also had Aykroyd in character at times, as if Jake and Elwood were real people separate from the comedians playing them. Meanwhile, fat white guys traded in their Elvis jumpsuits for dark suits and sunglasses as Blues Brothers tribute acts popped up around the country, including at both Universal Studios parks. And so in 1998, Aykroyd got the band back together, so to speak, to make a sequel.

Blues Brothers 2000 is bad in all the conventional ways a sequel can be bad, and indeed, in many of the same ways that Ghostbusters II is bad: The script follows the same building blocks as the original, with changes that are often cosmetic at best; the jokes are more mostly winking references to the first movie; attempts at “bigger and better” come off as bloated and forgettable; and with nothing new to bring to the table, everyone involved just appears sluggish and embarrassed, as if trying to squeeze into an old suit and pretending it still fits.

But it’s also bad in unique and interesting ways. On SNL, Aykroyd was the consummate sketch performer, arguably the greatest the show has ever had (give or take a Phil Hartman). And in films he did his most inspired work as a co-headliner, tailoring his performances to fit his more personality-based partners: laconic to Belushi’s manic, enthusiastic to Murray’s aloof, effete to Eddie Murphy’s rowdy in Trading Places, blowhard to John Candy’s everyman in The Great Outdoors. When faced with being an Elwood without a Jake, Aykroyd did himself a double disservice: by crowding Jake’s place with three new Brothers (John Goodman, Joe Morton, and J. Evan Bonifat), but then still centering the story on Elwood, even though the center does not suit the character, nor the performer. Nearly every scene in the first half has characters referencing Jake’s death, which should be poignant, but instead takes on an ugly, mercenary taste when considering that the Belushi estate refused to allow John’s image in the film. The film just keeps saying his name, hoping that the audience’s warm memories will fill in the rest.

Then there’s the music. The first film has been criticized for making stars of two mediocre white singers on the backs of black artists. While those criticisms are not unfounded, especially when the act’s wider legacy is considered, the film itself is more nuanced. It boasts big, career-revitalizing turns from James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Cab Calloway, John Lee Hooker, and others. Brown and Franklin both had comeback hits in the years afterward, and Ray Charles drove a car for Pepsi. But to watch the film again, you notice that their performances are not second fiddle to anyone. Jake and Elwood have their own songs, and nearly all of them were originally penned and performed by black artists, but when James Brown and Aretha do their thing, the Blues Brothers take a firm back seat. The John Lee Hooker performance on movie-set Maxwell Street doesn’t have Jake and Elwood on screen at all; a shot of them watching admiringly from the sidewalk was filmed but cut from the theatrical release.

Contrast that with 2000‘s treatment of its musician cameos. While BB King acquits himself with an actual character and a few lines, real Chicago blues legends Junior Wells and Lonnie Brooks spend the entire film not just playing backup, but playing backup to Dan Aykroyd, as he and John Goodman belt borderline novelty tunes like “Cheaper to Keep Her” and “Looking for a Fox”–which became the movie’s de facto single, a far cry from the first film’s definitive (like it or not) take on “Sweet Home Chicago.” Junior doesn’t get a moment to himself until the credits are rolling. And since there were so many great soul artists (and Travis Tritt) who were left out of the first film, it was somehow thought a good idea to cram them all onto a stage at once, give them a moment to sing or play a few bars, then move on to the next legend (and Travis Tritt) down the line. The result, supposedly a battle of the bands between the Blues Brothers and a supergroup where all the musicians are playing themselves, but not themselves, simultaneously, is a big ole mess, and a monument to the film’s conviction that Elwood Blues is a legitimate blues artist and keeper of the cultural flame, able to hold the stage unironically alongside Isaac Hayes and Bo Diddley. What once was a joke has become very serious.

(The climax of the movie is worth checking out, if only for Eric Clapton’s astoundingly petrified two-line performance. Seriously folks, they guy was so wooden I thought he was auditioning for Guardians of the Galaxy! Heyyyy!)

But the willingness of so many great musicians to participate in the film proves that Aykroyd wasn’t exactly wrong to think so highly of his brand, just as the decades of internet chatter about a third Ghostbusters developed into a perpetual hype machine, constantly feeding on itself, no matter the plausibility, enough for Sony to keep the franchise on its schedule like a dot forever at the horizon. Aykroyd is a survivor, literally and figuratively; perhaps it’s that sketch comedy ethic to keep things moving forward, always forward, no matter where the scene has taken us or who has left the stage. Just as he packed 2000 with extra Blues Brothers in an effort to make up for his partner/brother’s death, the idea of Ghostbusters: The Next Generation has always felt like a ploy to distract audiences from Bill Murray’s inevitable absence. Perhaps the best idea has always been to start from scratch, to hand the reins to artists for whom Ghostbusters was their personal obsession, the kinds of artists who would have been kids wearing their book bags as proton packs and busting Slimers on the playground, even if most of them have girl parts. Perhaps the years and years of setbacks were in some way intentional, because despite the public insistence that it needed to be right to be done at all, privately we all knew that it would never be done right, not like this. We knew because we had already seen it.

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One thought on “The Case Against Aykroyd

  1. Aykroyd’s ghostbusters’ reminds one of The East Side Kids’ movies. I think it is safe to say he exploits blues singers and probably plagiarizes old movies for basic ideas and then goes excessive. Just because some blues singers were in his movies or part of his radio show doesnt mean these people made the kind of profit he did. He’s a white guy that patronized and exploits(ed) vulnerable artists for his own gain.

    Saturday night live was funny because we weren’t used to reckless humor, it was on late and we were young and high. Watching belushi imitate joe cocker was really a shock. Belushi really wasn’t that funny–kind of angry guy and Aykroyd was topical. Gilda Radnor – Rosanna Deanna Dana and the rectal eclipse was hysterical.

    Second City TV was so much better – see utube for some of their skits. These people make aykroyd and belushi look mediocre.

    Like

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