“I have seen the light!: some personal thoughts on “The Blues Brothers”

Blues Brothers The Blues Brothers (Universal Pictures)

The action-comedy-musical classic turns 40 this year and remains both a staple of ’80s nostalgia & a love letter to Chicago.

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Over the years, I’ve had several opportunities to write at length about The Blues Brothers, John Landis’s mammoth musical-comedy centering on the misadventures of Joliet Jake (John Belushi) and Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd). However, I have noticed that, in almost every single case, those pieces have turned into elegies for the its lost elements—everything from departed cast members to the look of Chicago in its funky late-70s glory, when a film this gloriously strange could actually make it through the studio system in the first place.

Looking back, it seems odd that I would end up adopting even a mildly mournful tone in discussing a film as heedlessly joyful and entertaining as The Blues Brothers. Therefore, I want to try to reverse this trend by spending a little time not offering up a conventional review/historical overview of the film, but instead penning a few deeply self-indulgent words about the ways in which this silly knockabout study in excess helped to inspire, and even shape the life of one young lad.

I was born in 1971 in the Chicago area and saw my very first movie (Dumbo) at the age of three. From that moment, I was hooked, and over the next few years, I would watch them on TV (mostly on The 3:30 Movie on WLS, which never found a film that it couldn’t hack into a 90-minute slot), look at the ads in the newspaper that my dad would bring home from work every day and read up on them in library books. Put it this way—while other kids were reading comic books, I was reading copies of Variety.

It wasn’t just that I loved watching them—I wanted to know everything about them, and how they were made. If you had offered me a choice between a single day on a movie set or a month at Disney World, I would have taken the set visit without a moment’s hesitation. Alas, that seemed like a pipe dream, because, even at that young age, I knew that movies were made in California or New York, or other exotic locations that generally did not include Chicago.

What I didn’t know at the time was that there had been an unofficial ban on filming in Chicago. The story goes that, after an episode of the crime show M Squad involving a Chicago cop taking a bribe was aired, the long-reigning Mayor Richard J. Daley was so outraged that he would not allow anything to shoot there as long as he was in charge. When he passed away in 1976, filmmaking began to slowly return to the area (Brian De Palma’s The Fury made excellent use of the city) but the notion of movies being made in Chicago still seemed like an absurdity.

Looking back, it seems odd that I would end up adopting even a mildly mournful tone in discussing a film as heedlessly joyful and entertaining as The Blues Brothers.

However, when Jane Byrne became mayor in 1979, she began to push for more films to be shot in the city. When the idea of making a Blues Brothers movie came along at this time and promised to be a blockbuster (Belushi and Aykroyd were riding high from the success of SNL and the Blues Brothers album they had recorded), Byrne not only allowed them to shoot there, she essentially opened up the entire city to the producers to pretty much do whatever they wanted.

For a movie-mad 8 year-old living in the Chicago suburbs at the time, this was perhaps the greatest news ever. The notion of a Blues Brothers movie was exciting enough—thanks to a combination of lifelong sleep issues and reasonably liberal parents, I actually got to watch Saturday Night Live back then and Belushi and Aykroyd were already favorites of mine. The fact that it would be shooting in places that I knew and recognized from all my trips into the city was astounding. It’s hard to explain today how much the production took over and dominated the city between July and October of 1979. Cars were being driven through government buildings. A shuttered enclosed shopping mall in Harvey was completely redressed for an elaborate indoor car chase set. For one sight gag, the filmmakers literally dropped a Pinto from a height of 1200 feet onto Lake Shore Drive after getting special permission from the FAA.

Local newspapers and TV were filled with stories about these major stunts and other aspects of the production (though the seamier stories of drug use and spiraling budgets would only come out later) as well as reports on the return of hometown hero Belushi. Yes, there were other films shooting in the city around this time—a car was even famously launched from the Marina City Towers parking structure into the Chicago River for the Steve McQueen thriller The Hunter—but for all intents and purposes, this was the only game in town.

When The Blues Brothers finally came to theaters in June of 1980, it was perhaps the biggest gotta-see movie of my life to date—even the then-current The Empire Strikes Back paled in comparison. The one complication to all of this was that the film received the dreaded “R” rating, which pretty much made it a no-go. Luckily, two things broke in my favor—the realization that it got that rating exclusively because of a vast amount of foul language (that my parents were assured they would not be hearing afterwards), and the fact that my birthday was coming and I got to pick what I wanted to do. Thanks to this, it was a newly minted nine-year-old who settled into his multiplex seat one summer day to see the movie of his dreams and his first R-rated movie to boot (as my younger brother came along, this meant that he got to see his first R-rated movie at a younger age than I, a detail that continues to annoy me to this day.)

John Belushi, Aretha Franklin & Dan Aykroyd in The Blues Brothers (Universal Pictures)

Obviously, I went in with unreasonably elevated expectations, but The Blues Brothers not only managed to meet them, it wildly exceeded them. Belushi and Aykroyd were hilarious as always—the former an incredible ball of energy throughout and the latter moving and speaking in a terse, almost robotic, fashion in which he only seemed to fully express himself when he was behind the wheel of the Bluesmobile. Although I was never especially big on cinematic car chases and pileups, the ones on display here were indeed inspired, such as the Bluesmobile jumping the bridge in the beginning, the cop car bearing John Candy launching into the back of a semi (“We’re in a truck!”) and, of course, the climax which included the Bluesmobile barreling through Daley Plaza and numerous police cars smashing together on Lake Street in an orgy of twisted metal.

Even better than that was the fact that all of this mayhem was occurring in places that I knew and loved—the Picasso statue, Wrigley Field, the slightly seedy downtown area filled with bright marquees. Over the years, dozens of movies have been filmed in Chicago, but to this day, with the possible exception of The Untouchables, none of them have presented the city in a manner as iconic as this one does.

Almost as significant as seeing things that I knew and loved put up there on the big screen was how The Blues Brothers introduced me to so many other wonderful things. By that point, I had probably heard of people like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway and James Brown, but only to the extent that they existed. Thanks to the film, I got to see them all delivering musical performances of such a high caliber that it marks perhaps the only possible time in which Calloway could deliver a near-definitive rendition of his classic “Minnie the Moocher” and it wasn’t the unquestioned musical highlight. That crown goes to Aretha Franklin, when she transforms “Think” into something akin to grand opera—even my relatively clueless self knew that I was witnessing something really special. I even loved that comparatively quiet moment when legendary bluesman John Lee Hooker turned up in the crowd of people at the equally legendary Maxwell Street market to sing “Boom Boom.”

The soundtrack was an immediate post-screening purchase, and as I played it over and over again (alas, not “Boom Boom” since the record label declined to include it on the album), I sought out other music from these performers, which in turn led to developing an interest in R&B and straight blues. Some critics have accused the film in general, and Belushi and Aykroyd in particular, of being another example of white entertainers exploiting the work of black performers for profit. Strictly speaking, this may be true but, unlike others, Belushi and Aykroyd at least demonstrated a genuine interest and love for the music and culture and, speaking at least for myself, they were able to pass that interest on and expose this great music to new audiences, a feat that continues to this day. This also extends to Blues Brothers 2000, a misbegotten-beyond-belief 1998 sequel that is pretty awful in most respects (who could have possibly thought that adding a Macaulay Culkin wannabe to the mix was a good idea?) but which justifies itself by presenting an even greater array of musical talents.

For most people, The Blues Brothers may just be a amusing musical comedy—the kind of film that you can stumble upon on cable at any given point while channel hopping and stick it out to the end—with a downside that includes things ranging from the too-soon death of John Belushi to being the inspiration for couples awful karaoke renditions of “Sweet Home Chicago.” As for me, despite having seen it countless times over the years, every time I sit down to watch it again, I am instantly transported back to when I was nine years old, and it was still possible to be completely taken in by the magic of movies, and the spectacle of my city in all of its big screen glory. The only difference is that when I watch it now, I can do so while enjoying another delight that the film revealed to me.

Orange Whip? Orange Whip? Three Orange Whips.

The Blues Brothers Trailer:

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