The Blues Brothers is one of my all time favourite films. You can read my quick overview of the film here.
But there is much more to the film than I covered there with many interesting behind the scenes stories and information on the whole production. I have wanted to do this for a quite a while now, but I just kept putting it off or was too busy to get it done.
So here, I’d like to take a look at how the film got made to begin with. Rather like my behind the scenes look at JAWS I did a while back.
Yet before I can get into all the behind the scenes stuff with the film, first I need to go back to the very beginning and cover who The Blues Brothers are and how the whole phenomenon began…
Back in the early/mid 70s, Dan Aykroyd was running a backstreet bar called Club 505 in Toronto, Canada. It was sometime in 1974 when John Belushi was on a trip to Toronto and he went into Club 505 and first met Aykroyd. As Dan tells the story, he was playing a lot of old blues music; Downchild Blues Band, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, etc. Despite being from Chicago (the home of blues music), John Belushi really knew very little about the genre but loved what he heard in the club. This is when Dan and John first struck up a conversation when Belushi asked Aykroyd about this amazing music he was playing in his club and they became close friends as Dan educated John on blues music.
In 1975, John became a regular cast member on the then new TV show; Saturday Night Live (SNL). Dan was also hired to work on the show as an writer (some say at John Belushi’s request), but he soon became part of the main cast. It was around 1976 when John and Dan started to do musical warm ups for the audience of SNL. John and Dan used to dress up as bees and sing various comedic songs, which apparently John hated doing. It was one night when Belushi was getting into the bee costume once more he decided to wear a pair of sunglasses and sing a blues song called; King Bee…
From this performance, John and Dan came up with the idea of forming a musical group based on their shared love for blues music. They worked out the now iconic costumes, they developed the characters and put together a real band they could perform live with and decided to use these characters as a warm up for the SNL audience members instead of the bee thing. They had everything set… except for a name.
It was just before their first warm up as they had to be introduced to the audience when the SNL announcer just made up on the spot: “Here they are, those brothers, those brothers in blues… The Blues Brothers.”
Their first official performance as The Blues Brothers was said to be electric, the crowd went wild, there were standing ovations and cheers for more…and this was just a warm up remember. The new band idea was a roaring success and The Blues Brothers act gained popularity as John and Dan continued to perform, yet they only appeared on SNL as The Blues Brothers a total of three times (after the initial warm up). They appeared on 17th January, 1976, 22nd April, 1978 and their third and final appearance on 18th November, 1978.
Their passion and respect for classic R n’ B music was obvious as each performance was better than the last as they belted out great music and songs. Eventually, the characters started to grow as John and Dan continued to develop them over time, giving them a history, back story and even names. “Joliet” Jake Blues (named after Joliet Prison) and Elwood Blues (named after the Elwood Ordnance Plant, which made explosives during World War II). After the success of the SNL performances, the idea came about to put together an album and; Briefcase Full of Blues was relased in 1978.
Briefcase Full of Blues was recorded live when the band opened for comedian Steve Martin at the Universal Amphitheater on September 9, 1978. The album reached number one on the Billboard 200 and went double platinum, it is one of the best selling blues albums of all time and sold over 3.5 million copies. The Blues Brothers were now considered a genuine musical act.
Also around 1978, it was clear this simple musical group was starting to get too big for their SNL origins so Dan started to get ideas to turn this small act into a fully blown and developed story. He sat down and started to flesh out the concept even further, the idea became so big, it was too big for a TV show now and it slowly evolved into a film script… and a huge film script at that.
Originally titled; The Return Of The Blues Brothers, the script got out of hand and Dan had trouble selling the idea to anyone in Hollywood, until Universal Pictures finally decided to pick the project up and got the ball rolling on the film.
Your average movie script would come in around 120 pages. Dan’s script for this movie was over 340 pages long, it was full of in-depth back stories for each and every member of the band, long Aykroyd-esque monologues, and extremely detailed scenes that would be impossible to film in the late 1970s. This is when John Landis entered the picture as director and told Aykroyd the script was out of hand and needed trimming down… a lot. “The phone book” is what Landis would refer to the original script as. With the filming start date only a few months away, this script needed to be cut to a more manageable concept. So John Landis locked himself away and worked on the script for around three weeks trimming and cutting all the fat and eventually got it down to a more respectable and film-able idea. Still, there were a few heated discussions between Landis and Aykroyd. Landis needed a workable shooting script as the start day for filming got closer and closer, Aykroyd would fight pretty much every cut suggested. After a while, they reached a compromise and agreed to make more than one film from Dan’s original script, the idea was to make at least three films in total. With the promise of more Blues Brothers films, Dan finally agreed to several cuts knowing his ideas would be used in future films.
The film began shooting in John Belushi’s home city of Chicago, but it was never an easy or smooth production. The original budget was $12 million, which was an unheard amount to spend on a comedy film in 1979. Yet this film was to contain huge R n’ B stars like; Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Cab Calloway, plus the OTT car chases and crashes also pumped up the budget a fair bit too. Another costly factor and cause of some major problems included John Belushi’s now legendary drug use.
Dan Aykroyd: “We had a budget in the movie for cocaine for night shoots. Everyone did it, including me. Never to excess, and not ever to where I wanted to buy it or have it. John, he just loved what it did. It sort of brought him alive at night, that superpower feeling where you start to talk and converse and figure you can solve all the world’s problems.”
With the filming occurring in Chicago… and Belushi being from Chicago himself, he was treated like royalty. Drugs were literally being thrown at him, fans would readily hand over drugs to their favourite star without question, they would hand him vials and discrete packets as and when they could. This was something that started during the SNL skits they did, in fact if you get to watch any of the early Belushi performances… keep an eye out for “items” being thrown on stage. The drugs grew to such a problem that producers of the film hired Smokey Wendell as an “anti drug bodyguard” for Belushi to keep fans from supplying the drugs.
Smokey Wendell: “Every one of those guys wants to tell his friends, ‘I did blow with Belushi’.”
It wasn’t just cocaine that Belushi indulged in during the filming, he was also fuelled by quaaludes, mescaline, LSD, and even amphetamines. The only major drug he never touched was heroin. Well, he did try it once and well… All of the drug use was on top of the alcohol consumed as John and Dan set up their own private bar during production; The Blues Club, where the cast and crew would attempt to drink the place dry after a day of filming.
Belushi’s drug usage aside. There was even confusion over what kind of film they were making to begin with. Is the picture a comedy, buddy flick, musical?
John Landis: “You could tell there was confusion. I told some of the crew, ‘This is a musical.’ They were so confused. They didn’t know what the fuck they were making.”
It was only about a month into the shoot when the producers began to worry about the budget of the film. That initial $12 million was almost all gone already. A lot of the money was being spent on having to pay people overtime as John Belushi’s notorious partying began to cause problems. Belushi would often stay out all night drinking and doing drugs then turn up for filming pretty much wasted and would either continually ruin takes or just lock himself in his trailer and sleep for most of the day. These constant problems began to cause a rift between Belushi and Landis. You ever notice that most of the film takes place at night? This was party due to the fact Belushi was too wasted to work during the day.
John Landis: “John was fucked up. It became a battle to keep him alive and to keep him working on the movie.”
One night around 3 AM while filming the infamous shopping mall/car chase scene. Landis and Belushi got into an argument and then John Belushi just disappeared and nobody had any idea where he had gone to, not even his wife; Judy. His trailer was checked and nothing, the search began to find one of their main stars. Dan, on a hunch followed a nearby grassy path leading towards a residential area. As he gets closer, he noticed a house with a light on at 3 AM, so he thought he would ask to see of anybody there had seen Belushi, as Dan recalls…
Dan Aykroyd: “Uh, we’re shooting a film over here. We’re looking for one of our actors.
‘Oh, you mean Belushi?’ the home owner replied. ‘He came in here an hour ago and raided my fridge. He’s asleep on my couch’.”
Only John Belushi could walk into a complete stranger’s home at 3 AM and help himself to the contents of the fridge, then fall to sleep like Goldilocks. Dan woke John up and they both returned to the film as if nothing had ever happened.
By now, the shoot was now well over budget and time too. It was supposed to finish filming around mid September 1979. But September came and went and the film was still not finished. At this point, Landis had enough of all the delays being caused by Belushi’s antics and he headed to his trailer to confront him. When Landis got inside, he finds Belushi is not there but he does find a small mountain of cocaine on a table.
John Landis: “It’s like Tony Montana. It’s like a joke. I scoop it all up and flush it down the toilet. Probably a lot of money’s worth. So I’m on my way out of the trailer, and John comes in and says, ‘What’d you do?’ Then he pushes me, mostly to get to the table. It’s pathetic. He’s trying to get to the table to save the cocaine.”
As Landis recalls, the pair got into a slight scuffle but nothing too serious. Belushi then just broke down and began crying, the two Johns just hugged each other. It was painfully clear that Belushi was in desperate need of serious help. The idea to send Belushi to rehab came up but this would cause all sorts of problems in itself. They couldn’t replace John and use doubles to finish the shoot, no one can do John Belushi other than John Belushi. They could’t shut down production and wait for Belushi to get back from rehab as the film was already way over budget and any more delays would just cause even more problems. Then there was also the big problem that there would be no way Belushi would agree to go to rehab anyway. There was no option other than to just keep on filming.
Eventually, the Chicago shoot was finished, but there was still work to do in Los Angeles. This brought with it it’s own set of potential partying for Belushi. He was known to party at the Playboy Mansion, wild nights out with De Niro and Nicholson among others too. Around this time, Smokey Wendell (Belushi’s anti drug bodyguard) recalls a time when John Belushi came to speak to him.
John Belushi: “If I don’t do something now, I’m going to be dead in a year or two.”
During the Los Angeles shoot, Belushi did show some periods of sobriety. He was still using drugs on a regular basis and going out drinking all night, but he had cut back a lot since the filming began. Belushi was also on his best behaviour when in the presence of the picture’s big musical stars; Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Cab Calloway. These were like heroes to him and he was eager to impress them as much as he could.
It was time to shoot the big final concert scene which was shot at the Hollywood Palladium. Its a big and impressive scene that features hundreds of extras, Cab Calloway the entire Blues Brothers band and the dancing that Jake and Elwood had become famed for, the two stars needed to be 100% focused and fit for the filming. Sean Daniel, Universal’s vice president in charge of production at the time gets a phone call the day of the shoot. The story goes that Belushi saw a kid playing on a skateboard in the street and asked if he could have a go… he fell off the skateboard and seriously injured his knee.
Sean Daniel: “This was bad. We had to deal with it in the most effective and emergency-like way.”
It was also Thanksgiving weekend and finding a reputable doctor/orthopedist at such short notice was next to impossible. It took a few angry/desperate phone calls by the production staff but somebody was eventually found who was willing to give up their weekend. The orthopedist wrapped up and injected Belushi with painkillers as he then grits his way through the finale. Yes, John Belushi did that big finale with all the dancing and back flips while under medication and bandaged up after a really stupid accident.
The film is finally finished, yet it came it at just over two and a half hours. Which for a comedy film in 1979 was ridiculous. John Landis was ordered to cut the film down, he eventually removed around 20 minutes from the film (later re-added to the extended cut on DVD). But the problems didn’t end there. Landis received a call from the producers about a well respected cinema chain owner; Ted Mann of Mann Theaters. Among his cinemas were the Bruin and the National, both located in Westwood, a prosperous white neighbourhood. John Landis recalls the conversation…
Ted Mann: “Mr. Landis, we’re not booking The Blues Brothers in any of our national or general theatres. We have a theater in Compton where we’ll book it. But certainly not in Westwood.”
John Landis: “Why won’t you book it in Westwood?”
Ted Mann: “Because I don’t want any blacks in Westwood.”
Apparently, Mann explained why white people would refuse to see The Blues Brothers.
Ted Mann: “Mainly because of the musical artists you have. Not only are they black. They are out of fashion.”
Isn’t racial harmony a great thing eh?
Back then, your average film would get between 1,200-1,400 bookings to show the film in cinemas. The Blues Brothers got around 600 for the entire North US. The film was eventually released on 20th June, 1980 and it received pretty poor reviews from critics at the time. The odds were definitely against this film and its original $12 million budget being exceeded by more than doubling the initial estimate to around $26 million due to the various production problems and delays… and probably John Belushi’s drug expenses. It was looking like the film would be a major bomb, everything was going against it.
Yet the film proved the critics wrong. On its opening weekend, The Blues Brothers took around $5 million (that was a lot in 1980) and ended up taking $115 million worldwide by 1983… and it still pulls in the cash today too.
The Blues Brothers was/is one of Universal’s biggest hits and still continues to endure by entertaining and engaging audiences today. It has become its own successful franchise, spawned live stage shows, countless fan tributes and introduced several generations of people to a great and often overlooked genre of music and musical artists. Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and James Brown all credited this film with rejuvenating their careers at the time.
The Blues Brothers is one of my all time favourite films and I’ll never get tired of watching it… never. Learning about the problems the film had just makes me enjoy all the hard work put into it even more.
When John Belushi went to his “anti drug bodyguard” while making this film and said he thinks he’ll be dead in a year or two… he was not wrong. John Belushi died from acute cocaine and heroin intoxication on 5th March 1982 aged 33. Sadly, he never got to see just how popular and influential the film would become. Belushi’s early death also meant we never got to see any of those promised Blues Brothers sequels from Dan’s original script, though a few of the ideas did eventually make it into Blues Brothers 2000.
A life ended way too early, but what a legacy he left behind.
John Belushi: “I give so much pleasure to so many people. Why can I not get some pleasure for myself?”