A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “We’re On A Mission From God”. An 11-part, 40th anniversary celebration of “The Blues Brothers”. Call it a musical, a comedy, a buddy movie or a bloated vanity project. Call it what you want, It’s an absolute classic in all sense of the word, filled with memorable gags and soul stirring musical numbers. “The Blues Brothers” is the very first movie to star Saturday Night Live performers in characters they originated on the show. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd created their alter egos, Jake and Elwood Blues in 1976 for a musical segment on the long-running sketch program’s first season. During the original cast’s run on SNL, many would end up at the Holland Tunnel Blues bar, an establishment Aykroyd rented after he joined the show. It was there that the Canadian comedian introduced Belushi to rhythm and blues; the pair went on to record an album, “Briefcase Full of Blues”, as their Blues Brothers counterparts. Aykroyd wrote the script that was the size of the Los Angeles phone book and thought up the wise idea to turn these characters into the subject of a movie. Legendary comedy director John Landis, fresh off his success with “Animal House”, came on board as director and co-screenwriter. Landis had to battle constant filming delays due to John Belushi’s excessive cocaine addiction, which meant the production stalls led to the studios money burning and going far over budget. After poor test screenings, critical reception and having to cut down it’s original 2 & 1/2 hour running time. “The Blues Brothers” have become one of Universal Pictures most enduring hits, it’s a musically charged epic comedy, the likes of which has never been seen before or since.
Part 1: “We Took One Look At Each Other. It Was Love At First Sight”
It’s November 1973. The location is a speakeasy called the 505 Club, in Toronto and owned by actor, director and writer Dan Aykroyd. The club doesn’t open until one A.M. because Aykroyd works nights. For the past three years, he has been performing with Second City, the famed comedy troupe based in Chicago but flourishing from Toronto.
Aykroyd is at the 505, unwinding after a show, when a bullish 24 year old charges through the back door. It’s John Belushi, wearing a white scarf, a leather jacket and a cap that is worn by aging cabbies. The two met earlier in the evening, backstage at Second City. “We had heard of each other,” Aykroyd recalls. “We took one look at each other. It was love at first sight”. Belushi was a Second City alumnus, having spent two years with the Chicago troupe of Second City. Belushi was in Toronto, looking for talent to add to the Second City’s Chicago troupe.
Belushi asks Aykroyd to join him in Chicago, but Aykroyd said no and that he is contractually committed to Second City and happy in Canada, where he was born and raised (in Ottawa). Plus, Aykroyd owns a private club, with a jukebox stocked with his favorite music: R&B, soul and especially, blues. Both Chicago and Memphis blues. Belushi soon stops talking and starts to listen. “This is a nice record. What is it?”, Belushi says. Aykroyd replies, “A local blues band, called The Downchild Blues Band”. Belushi replies with: “Blues, huh? I don’t listen to too much blues”. A brief silence enters as Aykroyd says: “John. You’re from Chicago”.
Part 2: “You Should Call Yourselves The Blues Brothers”
Aykroyd lives and dies for the blues, where his blues evangelism transfixes Belushi and suddenly it’s all blues, all the time. Within a year, Belushi’s apartment contained hundreds of blues recordings. In the spring of 1975, Belushi and Aykroyd join the original cast of “Saturday Night Live”. This is where the Blues Brothers enter the equation, although…technically, they were conceived back on that night in 1973 Toronto.
Aykroyd mentions an idea he’s been mulling around. The idea, he recalls, “is based on a love of the city of Chicago and the music that came out of there”. One of Aykroyd’s friends, Howard Shore (An aspiring movie composer, who would go on to win three Oscars and four Grammys), chimed in on Aykroyd’s idea.
“You should call yourselves the Blues Brothers,” Shore says. But Aykroyd’s idea doesn’t gel until the early ”S.N.L.” days, when he and Belushi fully morph into Elwood and “Joliet” Jake Blues. The blood brothers outfitted like John Lee Hooker in black suits, skinny ties and Ray-Ban sunglasses. Aykroyd is Elwood, the harmonica-playing straight man, who loves plain white bread. While Belushi is Jake, the swaggering belter fresh out of the state prison in Joliet.
After the Blues Brothers play gigs around town for a while, creator of “S.N.L.”, Lorne Michaels lets them warm up the crowd before the live shows. The Blues Brothers go live from New York on January 17, 1976. Dressed as bees? The bee suits, which exploits “S.N.L.’s” popular “Killer Bees” skit, is short-lived. Two years later, during a show hosted by Steve Martin, Jake and Elwood finally take the stage, performing “Hey, Bartender”.
Three months later, Belushi’s first movie opens. This is “Animal House”, that makes Belushi a Major Movie Star. Suddenly Steve Martin is asking them to open for his nine-night stand at the Universal Amphitheater, in Los Angeles. The opportunity presents a vexing problem as Aykroyd and Belushi, have no band.
They turn to Paul Shaffer, who at the time was “S.N.L.’s” bandleader and future David Letterman house band, draw up a list of candidates. All are crack musicians, highly paid and hard to get. Belushi rallies in cold-calling the candidates at inappropriately late hours. He would say to guitarist Steve Cropper: “This is John Belushi. We’re putting a band together. I need you here tomorrow”. At Shaffer’s suggestion, both Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, the powerhouse combo from Booker T and the M.G.’s were suggested.
The rest of the band included “S.N.L.” band members saxophonist “Blue” Lou Marini and trombonist and saxophonist Tom Malone, who had previously played in the band Blood, Sweat & Tears. Belushi wanted a powerful trumpet player and a hot blues guitarist, so Juilliard-trained trumpeter Alan Rubin was brought in, as was guitarist Matt “Guitar” Murphy, who had performed with many blues legends.
Within days, the whole band is assembled and both Belushi and Aykroyd, execute perfectly choreographed dance routines on stage. They play it half-straight and half-comedic. The routine sees Aykroyd carrying a briefcase; while Belushi, with the key that unlocks it. Inside is Aykroyd’s harmonica.
They sign with Atlantic Records, who wants to record a live album at one of their shows. Both Aykroyd and Belushi, expand on the legend of Jake and Elwood. Creating their backstory, that they were raised by Curtis, a blues-playing janitor. The two go on tour as they need $5,000 to save the orphanage they were raised in. Their first album, “Briefcase Full of Blues”, goes double platinum. Meanwhile, on January 24th 1979, his 30th birthday, Belushi hits an unprecedented trifecta by having a No. 1 album, a No. 1 TV show, and a No. 1 movie.
Part 3: “We’re On A Mission From God”
Belushi gets an idea and says, “I say we make the thing into a movie”. Where Aykroyd replies with “Agreed”. Studio suits descend on “Saturday Night Live”. Including a young executive at Paramount Pictures, Don Simpson (“Top Gun”, “Days Of Thunder”) is among the fiercest of the suitors. It’s a neck and neck race between producer Don Simpson and Sean Daniel, an executive at Universal Pictures. Daniel who supervised “Animal House”. The bidding war was intense between Paramount and Universal Pictures. Because of Belushi’s experience with Universal, shooting “Animal House”, Universal beat out Paramount in the studio bidding.
Universal executive Ned Tanen, had to convince Universal’s boss of bosses, Lew Wasserman that “Blues Brothers” would be a hit. Wasserman trusts Tanen, who had persuaded him to make Universal’s smash “American Graffiti”. Belushi would get $500,000 and Aykroyd getting $250,000. If the film were a hit, hopefully the studio could get a potential blockbuster and quite possibly a franchise.
Choosing a director was a no-brainer. John Landis, the bearded comic prodigy, who had already guided Belushi and “Animal House” to a runaway success. After the completion of “The Blues Brothers”, Landis would go on to direct “An American Werewolf In London” the following year and the comedies “Spies Like Us”, “Three Amigos” and “Trading Places”.
Wasserman wants the movie done for about $12 million. The creatives are thinking $20 million. The executives want filming wrapped by August 1979, just six months away. The creatives wonder whether that’s even possible, let alone desirable. They envision The “Blues Brothers” as a large-scale production involving grand set pieces and a cast and crew of hundreds. There’s also the matter of a script…Which there isn’t one.
Part 4: “It’s 324 Pages. We Have A Lot Of Work To Do”
With no script, it would be impossible to settle on a specific amount or budget. After Belushi’s suggestion of screenwriter Mitch Glazer had fizzled out, as Glazer declined to help with a script. Dan Aykroyd had to write one on his own. Only appropriate as this is Aykroyd’s baby. He’s an Emmy winner, the writer of many or most of his best “S.N.L.” skits. Aykroyd has a lot of pressure, as the production hinges on the shoulders of a screenwriter who has never in his life written or even read a full length screenplay.
As he admitted in the 1998 documentary, “Stories Behind the Making of The Blues Brothers”, he was unable to find a writing partner to collaborate with him. Consequently, he put together a very descriptive volume that explained the characters’ origins and how the band members were recruited. His final draft was 324 pages long, which was three times longer than a standard screenplay and it was written not in a standard screenplay format, but more like a free verse.
To soften the impact, Aykroyd made a joke of the thick script and had it bound with the cover of the Los Angeles Yellow Pages directory for when he turned it in. Producer Robert Weiss, heads home one night to find an ominously thick package, its contents wrapped within the cover of L.A. phone book. Aykroyd’s screenplay, was titled “The Return of the Blues Brothers”.
Weiss calls Universal executive Sean Daniel and says “Good news. The first draft finally got here. It is not the typical 120-page draft. It’s 324 pages. We have a lot of work to do”. Ned Tanen said “The script is never ending. It doesn’t really work. It’s like a long treatment or something”. Now they’ve got a script with so much unnecessary structures and yet “The Blues Brothers” is scheduled to begin shooting in two months.
Director John Landis, with the script in hand, decides to lock himself away as he cuts, shapes and tones the massive script. Then he cuts some more. Three weeks later, he emerges with a script that’s down to size and shootable. It took Landis about two weeks to re-structure. Landis and Aykroyd haggle over bits that Aykroyd, wants to restore or change. Aykroyd wants a scene explaining why Elwood’s car, the Bluesmobile, has magical qualities. Landis doesn’t but agrees to film it, because he knows he’ll just cut it out later.
Part 5: “The Boss Of The Blues Brothers”
Right before Weiss finds the phone book sized script at his house. Belushi holds a meeting at his house and announces to everyone: “O.K., we’re going to do this movie. It’s going to be called The Blues Brothers, and it’s about …”
A once attached screenwriter Glazer says, “John would give one of the band members a raise, then the others would get mad and demand the same. And of course John had told each of them they were the heartbeat of the band”. Belushi implores them to “Come on!”, in his middle-linebacker way. “This is what we’re going to do! And I want you all to be a part of it!”. He corrals the band but loses its architect, Paul Shaffer, who has obligations in New York. Belushi, unmoved, circulates a memo of sorts. “Shaffer is out,” it reads. “He will never be a Blues Brother”.
Belushi who’s own exit from “S.N.L.” is inevitable, as his fourth season on the show was messy. He spent too much time bouncing between New York and Los Angeles while starring in “1941”, Steven Spielberg’s exuberant comedy about a Japanese invasion of California. Belushi had grown tired of “S.N.L.” and they grown tired of him.
The drugs certainly weren’t helping Belushi. Belushi’s appetites for fun and adventure were fueled by quaaludes, mescaline, LSD and amphetamines. But all of them combined took a backseat to cocaine. One line is never enough and coke fuels his performance, Belushi once said. It helps him to be John Belushi.
And Belushi is “the boss of the Blues Brothers,” as Aykroyd calls him. Whenever a band member has a problem, he turns to Belushi. Belushi always handles it. Somehow he manages to be both a father and a son. “He was very loyal,” says guitarist Steve Cropper. “And he was like a big child, everybody’s teddy bear. He just wanted to keep the party going. He was afraid that, if he went to sleep, he’d never wake up”.
During pre-production, Belushi and Aykroyd decamped to Hollywood. Aykroyd lived in a office, in a bungalow on the Universal lot. At night he “borrows” cars from Universal’s motor pool. Alone, or with Belushi, he drives to the top of Universal City to smoke joints.
Part 6: “Let’s Just Say We Were Welcomed By The Mayor”
Universal places an ad in the trades. As the ad reads: “Production has begun”. Belushi and Aykroyd would occupy the top two floors of the Astor Tower, a louvered high-rise in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood. This is thanks to their friend Stanley Korshak, who wangled a discounted rent for them. Korshak who is the son of Chicago’s Sidney Korshak, the notorious Mob lawyer and Hollywood “fixer” whose client list happens to include Universal boss man Lew Wasserman, who happens to have an in with Chicago’s mayor, Jane Byrne. “Let’s just say we were welcomed by the mayor”, Wasserman says and smiles, hence all the cooperation the city of Chicago gave them to crash all those cars.
The movie held the record for Most Cars Destroyed in the course of production for 18 years at 103, one less than was wrecked in “The Blues Brothers 2000” (1998). Both were surpassed by “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” in 2009 with 112 cars destroyed.
Belushi, who is from Chicago, is the city’s favorite son and does anything he wants. Everything about him, makes Belushi a figure of such resounding local popularity that Aykroyd calls him “the unofficial mayor of Chicago”. Much of the film was shot on location in and around Chicago between July and October 1979, including Joliet Correctional Center in nearby Joliet, Illinois. “The Blues Brothers” is credited for putting Chicago on the map as a venue for filmmaking. “Chicago is one of the stars of the movie. We wrote it as a tribute”, Dan Aykroyd told the Chicago Sun-Times.
The shopping mall car chase was filmed in the real, shuttered Dixie Square Mall, in Harvey, Illinois. The bridge jump was filmed on an actual drawbridge, the 95th Street bridge over the Calumet River, on the southeast side of Chicago. Jake’s final confrontation with his girlfriend was filmed in a replica of a section of the abandoned Chicago freight tunnel system. The other chase scenes included lower Wacker Drive, Lake Street, and Richard J. Daley Center.
In the final car chase scene, the production actually dropped a Ford Pinto, representing the one driven by the “Illinois Nazis”, from a helicopter at an altitude of about 1,200 feet and had to gain a Special Airworthiness Certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration to do it. The FAA was concerned that the car could prove too aerodynamic in a high-altitude drop and pose a threat to nearby buildings. The shot leading up to the car drop, where the “Illinois Nazis” drive off a freeway ramp, was shot in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, near the Hoan Bridge on Interstate 794.
The Lake Freeway (North) was a planned but not completed six-lane freeway, and I-794 contained an unfinished ramp off which the Nazis drove. The Palace Hotel Ballroom, where the band performs its climactic concert, was at the time of filming a country club, but later became the South Shore Cultural Center, named after the Chicago neighborhood where it is located. The interior concert scenes were filmed in the Hollywood Palladium.
The filming in downtown Chicago was conducted on Sundays during the summer of 1979 and much of the downtown was cordoned off from the public. Costs for filming the largest scene in the city’s history totaled $3.5 million. Permission was given after Belushi and Aykroyd offered to donate $50,000 to charity after filming.
Although the Bluesmobile was allowed to be driven through the Daley Center lobby, special breakaway panes were temporarily substituted for the normal glass in the building. The speeding car caused $7,650 in damage to 35 granite paver stones and a bronze air grille in the building. Interior shots of the elevator, staircase, and assessor’s office were all recreated in a film set for filming.
The film used 13 different cars for the Bluesmobile, that was bought at auction from the California Highway Patrol. The vehicles were outfitted by the studio to do particular driving chores; some were customized for speed and others for jumps, depending on the scene. For the large car chases, filmmakers purchased 60 police cars at $400 each and most were destroyed at the completion of the filming. More than 40 stunt drivers were hired and the crew kept a 24-hour body shop to repair the cars.
Part 7: “If You See Him Doing Drugs, For God’s Sake…Stop Him!”
Filming ran smoothly for a little while, until the days when the cocaine would get the best of Belushi and production would stall. When production stalls, the money burns.
By August, the production is falling behind and fast, and the trend is largely attributable to Belushi, who stays out until all hours of the night. Usually he can be found at his speakeasy or couldn’t be found at all. Except if there was cocaine, then Belushi was to be found.
Friends, fans and hangers-on literally throw it at him. They slip vials into his hands and pockets. “Every blue-collar Joe wanted his John Belushi story”, said Smokey Wendell, who would soon become Belushi’s anti-drug bodyguard. “Every one of those guys wants to tell his friends, I did blow with Belushi”.
“We had a budget in the movie for cocaine for night shoots,” Aykroyd says. “Everyone did it, including me. Never to excess, and not ever to where I wanted to buy it or have it. But 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 of the world’s problems”. Belushi, sometimes shows up hours late. Or he shows up but spends most of the time in his trailer, sleeping it off.
Belushi would often miss unit calls (the beginning of a production day) or go to his trailer after them and sleep, wasting hours of production time. Yes, Belushi occasionally tries Aykroyd’s patience. At one point, Aykroyd smashes his wristwatch, shouting, “Do you want to end up like this?”. But it’s been said that he always protects John and never judges. “There was a sense that, no matter what John did, Danny wouldn’t abandon him, that he didn’t think John was this awful person,” Carrie Fisher says. “He was really taking care of John”.
One night at three, while filming on a deserted lot in Harvey, Illinois, Belushi disappears. On a hunch, Aykroyd follows a grassy path until he spies a house with a light on. “Uh, we’re shooting a film over here,” Aykroyd tells the homeowner. “We’re looking for one of our actors”.
“Oh, you mean Belushi?” the man replies. “He came in here an hour ago and raided my fridge. He’s asleep on my couch.” Only Belushi could pull this off, which gave him the nickname of “America’s Guest,” Aykroyd said.
“John,” Aykroyd says, awakening Belushi, “we have to go back to work”. Belushi nods and rises. They walk back to the set as if nothing happened. The stars had a private bar, called “The Blues Club”, built on the set for themselves, crew and friends. Carrie Fisher (“Star Wars”), who was Aykroyd’s girlfriend at the time, said most of the bar’s staff doubled as dealers, procuring any drug patrons desired.
On the set, Belushi’s drug use just worsened. Fisher, who herself later struggled with cocaine addiction, said Landis told her to keep Belushi away from the drug. Nevertheless, at one point, Landis heads to Belushi’s trailer. There, on a table, he sees a mountain of cocaine. “It’s like Tony Montana,” Landis says, referring to the main character in “Scarface”.
“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”. They scuffle for about 15 seconds. “At which point,” Landis says, “John hugged me and started sobbing and apologized. He and I are sitting there, both crying, and I’m going, ‘John, this is insane.’” This all led to a tearful confrontation in which Belushi admitted his addiction and feared it could eventually kill him (which sadly it did).
After Belushi’s wife Judy and Aykroyd had a talk with Belushi about his antics, the production returned to Los Angeles. Filming there again ran smoothly, until it came time to shoot the final sequence at the Hollywood Palladium. Just beforehand, Belushi fell off a borrowed skateboard and seriously injured his knee, making it unlikely he could go through with the scene, which required him to sing, dance and do cartwheels. Wasserman persuaded the city’s top orthopedic surgeon to postpone his weekend plans long enough to stop by and sufficiently anesthetize Belushi’s knee and the scene was then filmed as intended.
Belushi was in free fall. “John was fucked up,” Landis says. “It became a battle to keep him alive and to keep him working on the movie”. When Carrie Fisher arrived on location, Landis gave her the same speech he gives everyone: “For God’s sake, if you see John doing drugs, stop him!”.
When production moved to Los Angeles, everything goes more or less on schedule and Los Angeles injects its energy. With parties at the Playboy Mansion, nights with De Niro and Nicholson. Belushi summons periods of sobriety. By now he had met Smokey Wendell, a bodyguard and anti-drug enforcer for Joe Walsh, guitarist for the Eagles. “If I don’t do something now,” Belushi tells Wendell, “I’m going to be dead in a year or two”.
Belushi stays on his best behavior while in the presence of the movie’s legendary musical stars: Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Cab Calloway. “The Blues Brothers” presents a real opportunity for all of them, since all but Ray Charles were in a commercial rut.
Part 8: “Shake Your Tail Feather”
At Aykroyd’s demand, soul and R&B stars James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin were cast in speaking parts to support musical numbers built around them. This caused friction between Landis and Universal later in the production, as its costs far exceeded the original budget. Since none of them except Charles had any hits in the years, leading up to the films release. The studio wanted the director to replace them with, or add performances by younger acts, such as Rose Royce, whose “Car Wash” had made them disco stars after its use in the 1976 film of the same name.
Other musicians in the cast include Big Walter Horton, Pinetop Perkins, and John Lee Hooker (who performed “Boom Boom” during the Maxwell Street scene). The members of The Blues Brothers Band were themselves notable. Steve Cropper and Donald Dunn are architects of the Stax Records sound (Cropper’s guitar can be heard at the start of the Sam & Dave song “Soul Man”) and were half of Booker T. & the M.G.’s.
Horn players Lou Marini, Tom Malone, and Alan Rubin had all played in Blood, Sweat & Tears and the Saturday Night Live band. Drummer Willie Hall had played in The Bar-Kays and backed Isaac Hayes. Matt Murphy is a veteran blues guitarist. As the band developed at Saturday Night Live, pianist Paul Shaffer was part of the act and was cast in the film. However, due to contractual obligations with SNL, he was unable to participate, so actor-musician Murphy Dunne (whose father, George Dunne, was the Cook County Board President) was hired to take his role.
Carrie Fisher, Henry Gibson and John Candy were cast in non-musical supporting roles. The film is also notable for the number of cameo appearances by established celebrities and entertainment industry figures, including Twiggy as a “chic lady” in a Jaguar convertible whom Elwood propositions at a gas station, Steven Spielberg as the Cook County Assessor’s clerk, John Landis as a state trooper in the mall chase, Paul Reubens (before Pee-wee Herman) as a waiter in the Chez Paul restaurant scene, Joe Walsh in a cameo as the first prisoner to jump up on a table in the final scene and Chaka Khan as the soloist in the Triple Rock choir.
There is also “Muppets” puppeteer Frank Oz playing a corrections officer. Singer/songwriter Stephen Bishop is a deputy sheriff who complains that Jake and Elwood broke his watch (a result of the car chase in the mall). Makeup artist Layne Britton is the old card player who asks Elwood, “Did you get me my Cheez Whiz, boy?” The character portrayed by Cab Calloway is named Curtis as homage to Curtis Salgado, a Portland, Oregon, blues musician who inspired Belushi while he was in Oregon filming “Animal House”.
Over 500 extras were used for the next-to-last scene, the blockade of the building at Daley Center, including 200 National Guardsmen, 100 state and city police officers, with 15 horses for the mounted police (and three each Sherman tanks, helicopters, and fire engines).
Part 9: “I think we’ve spent that already?”
The original budget was quickly being surpassed and back in Los Angeles, Wasserman grew increasingly frustrated. He was regularly confronting Ned Tanen, the executive in charge of production for Universal over the costs. Sean Daniel, another studio executive, was not reassured when he came to Chicago and saw the production had set up a special facility for the 70 cars used in the chase sequences. Filming there, which was supposed to have concluded in the middle of September, but continued into late October.
Each morning, Wasserman sees what he least wants to see. The budgets numbers are trending upward. Still, filming continues despite a collective worry about the final budget. Neither Landis nor Weiss even sees the magic number until a month or so into filming. When Weiss saw the supposedly final $17.5 million budget, he reportedly joked: “I think we’ve spent that much already”.
They both know that every lost day, every extra hour of overtime pay to union workers, only brings “overages” and therefore the wrath of Wasserman. “Lew would nail me every day,” Tanen says. “I wasn’t getting phone calls. He would come to my office and say, “Goddammit”. Or, when scenes take too long to shoot, he’d say: “God damn this thing, they’ve only got two and a half minutes to do it”. Or he would say, “God damn that director”.
The more Tanen defends Landis, the less he can explain the overages. Everything was being done that could be done to keep from continuing to go over budget. Whether they wanted to blame Belushi or not (he was a major problem to the over budget), pinning it all on him wasn’t an option. “I couldn’t say to Lew, ‘We have another kind of problem’. It’s not what he wanted to hear. You didn’t tell him somebody was stoned or couldn’t get out of his trailer. You just didn’t do it”.
Part 10: “We’re Not Booking This In Any Of Our Theaters”
In the weeks preceding the movie’s theatrical release date of June 20th 1980, Landis screens “The Blues Brothers” for major theater owners. The owners, who call themselves “exhibitors,” are Hollywood’s ultimate gatekeepers. They hold a movie’s fate in their hands. “Most of them said, ‘This is a black movie and white people won’t see it.’ Most of the prime houses wouldn’t book it”.
Granted, Landis had a few roadblocks, including Belushi’s previous movie, Steven Spielberg’s “1941”,had crashed and burned at the box office, earning “The Blues Brothers” the nickname “1942” and inspiring to distribute buttons that read, “John Belushi, Born 1949 and Died 1941”. Also, “The Blues Brothers” was clocking in at two and a half hours. Universal big boss Wasserman, was exiting a preview screening and spots Landis and gestures with two fingers, in a scissoring motion.
Landis cut 20 minutes, but it was re-incorporated back into the movie when the film was released on home video in an Unrated Extended Version. In the meantime, another bomb explodes. “Lew calls me up to his office,” Landis says. “I go in there and he says, John, do you know Ted Mann of Mann Theaters?”. Mann owned many of the country’s top movie houses, among them the Bruin and the National, both located in Westwood, a prosperous white neighborhood. Lew says, “Ted, tell Mr. Landis what you just told me”.
Landis remembers, the conversation accordingly.
Mann: “Mr. Landis, we’re not booking The Blues Brothers in any of our national or general theaters. We have a theater in Compton where we’ll book it. But certainly not in Westwood.”
Landis: “Why won’t you book it in Westwood?”.
Mann: “Because I don’t want any blacks in Westwood”.
Then, Landis says, Mann explained why whites won’t see the film: “Mainly because of the musical artists you have. Not only are they black. They are out of fashion”. Prospects for a successful release weren’t looking good. Not with Belushi’s box office failure of “1941” or the fact that, Aykroyd and Belushi had left “Saturday Night Live” at the end of the previous season, reducing their bankability.
Ultimately “The Blues Brothers” got less than half the bookings nationwide for its initial release than a typical big-budget studio film would of the era. The film’s final budget was $27.5 million (equivalent to $85.3 million in 2020), $10 million over its original budget.
The typical big-budget movie gets booked into about 1,400 theaters. “The Blues Brothers” got about 600 bookings. This, coupled with frequently heckling reviews, calling it “a ponderous comic monstrosity” and The Washington Post calling it “An epic disaster”. It exceeded its $17.5 million budget by $10 million and before the twenty minute trim, it was needlessly long and clearly flawed.
Part 11: “A Musically Charged Epic Comedy”
“The Blues Brothers” made $115 million, off of a $30 million budget to become one of Universal’s most enduring hits and its greatest farce.
Call it a musical, a comedy, a buddy movie or a bloated vanity project. It’s a classic in all sense of the word, filled with memorable gags and soul stirring musical numbers. While frequently and aggressively raucous, it’s one of my very favorite comedies and musicals.
Landis is one of the greatest comedic directors of the 80’s, but here he is at the peak of his powers. Aykroyd’s script has a surprising amount of grace, humor and whimsy, backed by toe-tappingly great tunes. “The Blues Brothers” is a musically charged epic comedy, the likes of which has never been seen before or since.