Elwood: It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark… and we’re wearing sunglasses.
Jake: Hit it.
Jake and Elwood were on a mission from God but when it came to production on their 1980 hit film The Blues Brothers, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi might as well have been driving in the dark with their sunglasses on. The Blues Brothers may now be a cultural touchstone for generations of blues-loving Americans, but in many ways it was a calamitous car crash of a production that, for all its toe-tapping, finger clicking, genre-reviving fun, couldn’t save its brightest star.
It was Aykroyd’s idea. A music fan who ran his own illegal jukejoint, it was he who introduced Belushi to the blues in a Chicago bar the night they first met. And it was Aykroyd who had the vision of two brothers in black fedoras and dark glasses, living in the city of Chicago and playing its good, soulful music. But it was Belushi who was its star-powered driving force: as Aykroyd said, he was “the boss of the Blues Brothers.”
Cast members of Saturday Night Live, Aykroyd and Belushi had been busting out the brothers as a warm-up skit before the show began. In 1976, they finally had their on-air debut, bizarrely dressed as bees singing Slim Harpo’s ‘I’m A King Bee’, and when Steve Martin invited them to open a run of his shows in 1978, the buzz around the Blues Brothers band truly began to build. The timing was serendipitous – Animal House had just made a star of Belushi and they entered 1979 signed to Atlantic Records with a double-platinum record at no. 1. For Belushi, there was no question: it was time for a movie. Universal Studios beat Paramount Pictures in a bidding war and Animal House director John Landis was brought on board.
But the Bluesmobile had already run into engine trouble. Aykroyd handed over a 324-page script written in free verse and jokingly bound as a Yellow Pages, leaving Landis to somehow cleave a plot from its rambles. Even more ominously, there was simply no budget. Universal head Lew Wasserman thought $12 million, the filmmakers thought $20 million. Thanks to a slow-moving production and an elusive and unruly lead in Belushi, it quickly swelled to $27.5 million. When the movie production veered wildly into action in July 1979, Universal Pictures watched on in horror as it threatened to crash with all the disaster of their Chicago police car pileup.
Chicago was an unprecedentedly accommodating city for the production; it was, after all, a love letter to its musical heartbeat of the blues. The chaos of the shoot spilled over naturally onto its streets – until its sequel in 1998, The Blues Brothers held the world record for the most number of car crashes – but with a ready supply of Chicago police cars and permission to destroy them in any manner of their choosing came a more sinister side to the city: drugs.
Drugs were hardly a rare sight on a movie set, but The Blues Brothers, with its cast of hellraisers, took it up a gear. “We had a budget in the movie for cocaine for night shoots,” Aykroyd told Vanity Fair last year. As evidence of their extravagance, for the cast and crew it was simply matter of course: “Everyone did it,” he said, “including me.” But for Belushi, it was different: “It sort of brought [John] alive at night,” Aykroyd said of the addiction that would eventually kill him. And it was the city’s inhabitants who were among the biggest culprits; strangers would readily hand over coke, wanting their ‘Belushi story’ of a night with the windy city legend. Landis was eventually forced to hire a man to keep a watch on Belushi, even warning co-star, Carrie Fisher, “For God’s sake, if you see John doing drugs, stop him.”
At what is often recounted as the nadir of Belushi’s Blues Brothers freefall, Landis discovered a ‘mountain’ of cocaine in his trailer and flushed it down the toilet: Belushi was left sobbing and later fatefully admitted to Landis that he feared his addiction would kill him. With no way to finish the film but continue with Belushi, production rolled into Los Angeles to wrap up, thankfully taking a turn for the better. Aside from a mishap involving a skateboard, Belushi’s knee and last-minute orthopaedic anaesthesia, the film was in the can.
The chaotic, hedonistic shoot had ended in success: the film grossed $115 million and managed to singlehandedly revive blues music along with a handful of its fading talents. But tragically, its triumphant musical revolution was also to prove one of the final notes of Belushi’s own swansong: just two years later, Belushi was found dead at the Chateau Marmont, killed by an overdose of heroin and cocaine.
“It’s all false pressure,” Belushi told Cosmopolitan in 1981, a year before his death – “you put the heat on yourself”. He was speaking of an industry that, after The Blues Brothers, had branded him an even bigger star than before, an industry that would tragically never see him burn any brighter. “You’re so much happier if you don’t,” he concluded. “But I guess happiness is not a state you want to be in all the time.”
Happiness may be as ephemeral as Belushi suggested but The Blues Brothers more than fulfilled the true purpose of blues music: to sing away sadness and celebrate overcoming adversity. You can’t help but wish that the story of Belushi had played out the same way.