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“It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank, half pack of cigarettes, it’s dark out, and we’re wearing sunglasses. Hit it.”
In 1978, the Blues Brothers were born. It was the beginning of the story to the iconic, and cinematic band that dominated the 20th century. The outfit, billed as a blues and soul revival band, was formed by comedians Dan Aykroyd and the late renegade John Belushi. Taking the roles of Jake “Joliet” Blues (Belushi), and Elwood Blues (Aykroyd), the two backed by session musicians, made their debut on Saturday Night Live. With a blues-based, soul-driven sound, the pair dressed in a cool armour. Sporting matching black suits, white shirts, black hats, and permanently attached Ray-Bans, the comedy took a slight back seat to the quality of the performances.
The backing band was integral to the Blues Brothers’ success: it may surprise you to learn that members included guitarist Steve Cropper and Donald Dunn. Both played on recordings by Otis Redding and Booker T. & The MG’s. Add to this the powerhouse guitar of the late Matt Murphy, who, at one time backed the legends Howlin’ Wolf and Memphis Slim.
From that SNL springboard came the opportunities to expand beyond a comedic, manufactured band. These opportunities included opening for the psych-rock band the Grateful Dead and releasing a live album recorded while opening for Steve Martin. Although formed by comedians, the band and the two lead men functioned as a working unit. In 1980 came the movie, and the fictional story became a cult which still entertains forty years later.
The movie adaptation of The Blues Brothers is not an origin story by any means. It begins as Jake is released from prison, and gets picked up by Elwood. From there they return to the stern Catholic orphanage they were brought up in. Here they meet the terrifying Sister Mary “the Penguin” Stigmata, who asks for their help in raising five grand as the orphanage faces closure.
And here begins the mission from God. Searching for inspiration they travel to a Baptist church to hear the sermon of Reverend Cleophus James (James Brown). After an electrifying display, Jake is inspired to reform the band and raise funds to save the audience. It’s from this point the movie switches to a musical.
Projected through cameos, starting with James Brown, the exquisite music brings life to the tale. As they gather band members, Matt “Guitar” Murphy and “Blue Lou” Marini, who work at a soul food restaurant, Murphy’s wife, Aretha Franklin, bursts into a rendition of her classic sixties hit “Think”. Later, as they source instruments from Ray’s Music Exchange, another musical number drops, this time through Ray (Ray Charles). All these breaks into music are executed stylishly, although they arrive out of nowhere to add an artistic surrealism to what otherwise would be seen as a bleak, black comedy.
In between all of the music, and scrambling to put a blues revival band together, the brothers do have run-ins with state troopers known as ‘Illinois Nazis,’ and Jake’s ‘bunny boiling’ ex-fiancée (Carrie Fisher). Not to mention the honky tonk outfit, The Good Ole Boys, who lost a gig to the Blues Brothers. All of these forces converge on Jake and Elwood as they race back to Chicago after playing the concert and meeting a record company executive along the way. What develops is an epic car chase, bringing it to a total of 103 smashed vehicles throughout the movie, and one act of levitation by the lord. The finale sees them performing “Jailhouse Rock” in prison, as inmates, and the movie ends as it began: in a penitentiary.
Some of the more poignant aspects of the film lie in those cameos and musical numbers. For example, all the artists that performed – Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Ray Charles – are no longer with us. The same is true of blues giant John Lee Hooker who appears as busker Street Slim.
The most surreal performance is that of the 72-year old Cab Calloway running through “Minnie the Moocher.” These elements all add to the nostalgia factor, and so too does the appearances of a young Carrie Fisher. Similarly, seeing John Candy stirs up the emotions. But, a further loss, and one which made The Blues Brothers, is the slick-cool presence of John Belushi.
The task of bringing The Blues Brothers to the big screen was the headache of director John Landis (Trading Places). Landis had previously worked with Belushi on the influential comedy Animal House (1978). However, it was Aykroyd who wrote the script, despire never seeing a script previously. What he produced was a mammoth 324-page draft, eventually cut down to less than half its size. And although Dan was paid only half the money Belushi was, he was the draw, the ‘bigger name’ of the two. All of this was while he was spiralling through addiction. After the success of Animal House and his SNL appearances, he was revered as a comedic talent above everything else. With this fame came excess, followed by an intake of amphetamines, quaaludes, mescaline, LSD, and cocaine.
The budget of The Blues Brothers soared from the original Universal Studio quote of 12 million, to 18 million, and finally coming in at 30 million. It was not entirely Belushi’s fault, but he did contribute. Delays regarding the script certainly held up filming. There are also stories of legendary parties. Along with how John Landis became a babysitter to Belushi. One story involves Landis searching for his star only to find him in a trailer in front of a table consisting of cocaine just like a scene out of Scarface. The sad fact remains, a little over two years later, Belushi was found dead at the Chateau Marmont, Los Angeles, on March 5th 1982.
When The Blues Brothers hit cinema screens, reviews were mixed. The difficulty came in nailing down what it was, as it exists somewhere on the spectrum of a comedy, musical, buddy comedy. Others defined it simply as a vanity project.
Nevertheless, the charm of the performances of Belushi and Ackroyd connected with audiences, even if they were thrown by the sudden musical numbers. Looking back it may have aged, and the cinematography may seem extremely outdated. But the cast of characters, brought together for a mission from God remains a must-watch cinematic marvel.