With a drug-addled star, a spiralling budget and an unfinished script, there is more to The Blues Brothers than you may think…
The Blues Brothers is a seminal film from 1980, a movie which manages to straddle genres like no other, combining comedy, music, action and crime. What you may not know, is that life for Jake and Elwood Blues started before the motion picture.
Way back in 1973, John Belushi was in Canada on a talent poaching trip for the National Lampoons Revue, he was visiting backstage at the Second City comedy club where he met a gangly looking 20 year old called Dan Aykroyd. They had both heard of each other by reputation on the comedy circuit and began to hang out, soon becoming firm friends. It was Aykroyd who introduced Belushi to blues music, as Belushi was more into Metal at the time and Aykroyd is a walking encyclopaedia on the subject, being an hardcore blues fan. It was listening to old blues records that Belushi had the idea for a hepcat character called Shirley Bayliss, a guy in a black suit, white shirt, black tie and shades.
By 1975, both Belushi and Aykroyd had joined Saturday Night Live. They wanted to try out the now re-christened Blues Brothers (a name that was suggested by composer Howard Shore). They asked Lorne Michaels if they could perform on SNL with some proper rhythm and blues musicians backing them up, Lorne relents and lets them warm up the crowd before filming. “It was an odd situation.” remembers bass player Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn of their first appearance on SNL. “People didn’t know how to take us at first, the audience was expecting a comedy act, and there we were, cranking out old blues numbers. But the music was so good, and Belushi and Aykroyd threw themselves into it whole heartedly, the crowd were digging us soon enough”
They went on to establish the Blues Brothers as semi-regulars, even supporting Steve Martin at LA’s Universal Amphitheatre, which went so well, that they released their first LP, called, A Briefcase Full of Blues. It went on to sell 3 millions copies, making it one of the most successful blues albums of all time.
Belushi wanted to take the characters into a new medium and asked Aykroyd to write a screenplay for a movie. As Aykroyd recalls “John got me to write the film, but the problem was I had no idea how to write a movie script”. His first draft was a huge 324 pages, with Dan Aykroyd’s passion for cars layered within the script and whole pages taken up with detailed descriptions of the Bluesmobile.
They handed it off to John Landis, who managed to prune it down to a more relatively straight-forward tale of Jake and Elwood trying to raise some cash to save their childhood Orphanage and along the way, upset Neo-Nazi’s, The Good Ol’ Boys and the State of Illinois. Shooting got underway, even though the script wasn’t finished and John Belushi was already partying like it was 1999. As Aykroyd acknowledged “John’s capacity for consumption was much greater than mine. If I had 6 beers, he would have had 12. If, hypothetically, I did 3 or 4 lines of coke, he would do twice, or three times as much. John Belushi always took it to the limits of endurance”
In John Woodward’s biography of Belushi “Wired”, Wooodward stated that on the 64th day of filming, Landis was under pressure from the studio over the ballooning budget, he went to Belushi’s trailer to try and motivate his star over his erratic behaviour.
Upon entering the trailer, there sat Belushi, in a trance, shirt covered in Brandy with a bag of coke the size of a bag of flour on the table. Exasperated, Landis picked up the cocaine and flushed it down the toilet. As an angry, bloated Belushi rose unsteadily to his feet, Landis then proceeded to punch him in the face. Rather than retaliating, the actor burst into tears. “I’m so ashamed.” he sobbed “”Please understand, I need it. I need it.”
When filming later moved to Chicago, a grip approached John Landis to explain that Belushi, who was due onset, had disappeared off into the local neighbourhood. A frantic door-to-door search was started, with Belushi eventually found in a complete strangers house, asleep on the sofa, having already emptied the owners fridge.
This wasn’t the only time that John had used his popularity with the public for his benefit, during a blazing row onset with Landis, a producer suggested taking it outside, away from the crew. As the pair moved outside, the arguing got worse, until Belushi said screw it, walked up to the nearby road and stuck out his thumb. Before Landis had a chance to say anything, a car screeches to a stop next to John, a star-struck stoner-type starts shouting “John Belushi duuuuuude!!!” Belushi just jumps straight into the strangers car and snaps “Take me straight to the Chateau Marmont”. With that they roar off, leaving a exasperated but impressed Landis wondering what happened.
Dan Aykroyd once said that Belushi was America’s guest, where everyone was happy to see him and offer him their hospitality.
While Belushi may have been proving problematic, John Landis was hopeful that other areas of production would go more smoothly, they didn’t. Strangely, the professional performers like Aretha Franklin, were having trouble lip-syncing to their pre-recorded songs, as most of them never sung a song the same way twice. James Brown‘s performances were so different each time that Landis ended up recording his vocal track live on set, with the music prerecorded and played over the top whilst he was performing.
Bigger problems lay with finding suitable cars to be used, or trashed, in the many chase sequences. There was an estimated 73 cars destroyed during the making of the movie, with 13 1974 Dodge Monaco’s used for the Bluesmobile alone. One of the hardest moments to film was the gravity-defying fall of the Nazi’s station wagon, which had to be dropped from below a helicopter at 1500ft. They had to get clearance from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) before filming the scene, the FAA wanted reassurances that the car would fall correctly and gave them a target zone of 50 feet by 50 feet to hit. They performed several test drops, from various heights, to make sure the car wouldn’t veer off-course and end up coming down though somebody’s house.
The chase sequence through the shopping centre also posed a problem, as they had to find an abandoned property large enough so that they could transform it into a shopping mall, and then destroy it. After miraculously finding an empty mall in Dodge County, they then had to fill the huge adjoining car park for the opening scene. The producers made a deal with a car manufacturer to park a thousand new cars in it, with the condition that none would be damaged. The producer then had a strongly worded chat with all concerned about not hitting any of the returnable cars. To make the empty mall look real, the producers struck deals with retailers, who came down and dressed up the empty shops themselves. They had an agreement that any merchandise not destroyed could be returned back without charge. The Blues Brothers producers started to worry people might break in and start thieving so they employed a highly reputable security company to guard the stock. After a few days, it came to light that the new security guards were stealing the products.
The final chase scene, which travels through Chicago and ends at the Cook County Assessors office, was only achieved by Landis liberal use of the company cheque book, The cast ballooned to include a real SWAT team, 200 Chicago Police officers, 100 National Guardsmen, 4 tanks and two helicopters. They were the first big movie production to be allowed to shoot and more importantly, shut down huge areas of downtown Chicago. They shot the car chase in the early hours on weekends, when the impact on the locals would be lessened, but they still had to have production assistants on every alley, doorway and street, just in case someone might wander into the path of a car, whizzing past at 110mph.
Unsurprisingly, John Landis went over-budget, by $18 million, bringing the cost of production to $27 million, making it, at the time, the most costly comedy ever. When Landis handed over the final cut of the film, the studio was unimpressed with the 2-and-a-half-hour runtime and demanded that he cut it by 25 minutes. He managed to remove 15 minutes, which remained unseen until the directors cut was released 18 years later.
The studio still had no faith in the project, thinking that white Americans would be put off by the rhythm and Blues music. Once released, the film slowly built its reputation, eventually taking $115m at the box office, making it the 10th most successful film of 1980.
It also helped to rejuvenate the careers of some of the musicians involved. James Brown explained “I know that The Blues Brothers got a hell of a lot of people back into R&B. When John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd invited me to be part of the film, they helped me get myself going again. I was going through a bad period at the time, having trouble getting my records released. John knew I was having problems, and said, ‘How can I help?’ He was there for me.” The film did also great things for John Landis and Dan Aykroyd, who would enjoy even greater financial success with 1983’s Trading Places.
The only person who wasn’t thrilled by the film was Belushi, who thought that it wasn’t good enough and convinced himself that it had failed. Regardless of what his co-stars, or the box office receipts said, Belushi was already reeling from the critical response he had got from Steven Spielberg’s 1941, a comedy WW2 movie (Currently Spielberg’s lowest scoring film on IMDB). Belushi tried to reinvent himself with his next 2 movies, Continental Divide and Neighbors, both released in 1981. Both movies under-performed and failed to capture the magic of Belushi.
As his self-worth dropped, his drug use increased, until 5th March 1982, when his bodyguard-cum-trainer Bill Wallace found the actor at his Chateau Marmont hotel room. He had died of a massive overdose of cocaine and heroin. He was just 33. When asked previously what his dream job would be, he said “That’s easy, I’d be a singer”.