June 25, 2024

The Triumph of ‘The Blues Brothers’

Today, the movie probably wouldn’t be made since it’s such a flagrant act of cultural appropriation.

By the time the makers of the “The Blues Brothers” had finished filming the movie’s epic finale in Chicago’s Daley Plaza, they’d spent $3.5 million on that scene alone.

According to Daniel de Vise in his enjoyable new book on the iconic 1980 comedy, it was reportedly the most that had then ever been spent filming a movie scene in a big city.

During production, “The Blues Brothers” became an industry watchword for cost overruns and inevitable disaster. As it transpired, the film more than justified the roughly $30 million spent on crashing stuff with a box office exceeding $100 million.

“The Blues Brothers” is a key piece of American popular culture, holds up well even today, and did much to revive the careers of such blues greats as Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Cab Calloway, who made cameos.

The movie relates the story of two brothers, “Joliet” Jake (John Belushi), who has just been released from prison, and Elwood (Dan Aykroyd), both of whom are former bluesmen. When they learn the Catholic orphanage where they were raised is at risk of getting foreclosed on due to an unpaid $5,000 tax bill, they resolve to get their band back together and make the money.

Belushi was the son of Albanian immigrants whose father owned a restaurant. Aykroyd is a Canadian who had an interest in performing at a young age. They both came up in the improv scene and broke through on “Saturday Night Live.”

Belushi was the bigger star, but Aykroyd the greater comedic mind. He had the original interest in the blues, and turned Belushi onto the genre. Obsessed, Belushi would play 45s for friends and drop into clubs where he could sing a song with a live band.

So why not start an act? Aykroyd sketched out the idea of the musician brothers who wore black suits and sunglasses day and night. (Belushi and Aykroyd had to be supplied with more than a hundred pairs of Ray-Ban Wayfarers to get through the movie.)

De Vise writes, “Formal dress linked the white bluesmen with the grand tradition of Black rhythm and blues. R&B icons of the pre- and post-war eras were always impeccably dressed.”

It’s a tribute to Aykroyd and Belushi’s creative drive that they made the Blues Brothers a real band before it was a movie. They opened for the Grateful Dead, and jammed with the Rolling Stones and the Eagles.

Their album, “Briefcase Full of Blues,” hit No. 1 on the Billboard album chart in 1979.

For the movie, Aykroyd traveled in Chicago and its environs, taking photos and getting inspiration. He wrote the script, and director John Landis, coming off of his smashing success with “Animal House,” reworked it.

He added to Elwood’s famous line “It’s 106 miles to Chicago. We have a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes” the kicker: “It’s dark and we’re wearing sunglasses.”

“The Blues Brothers” is largely a car-chase movie, beginning with the moment Elwood runs a red light and is discovered by the cops to have been driving with a suspended license after racking up 116 parking tickets and 56 moving violations.

The stunts drove up the cost of the production, while Belushi’s prodigious drug abuse, which killed him at age 33, added delays and complications.

Today, the movie probably wouldn’t be made since it’s such a flagrant act of cultural appropriation. There were complaints at the time about the two white comedians of questionable musical talent overshadowing real blues performers. But the movie was a passionate and sincere homage that increased the profile of the genre.

After the cops first start chasing the brothers in the film, Elwood memorably says: “They’re not going to catch us. We’re on a mission from God.”

When it came to creating a highly entertaining movie that deserves its cult status and honored a great American art form, it was mission accomplished.

© 2024 by King Features Syndicate

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