Blues Brothers

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Hello everyone and welcome to season 4 of The Black Case Diaries! We’re three old friends learning as much as we can about movies and TV, and hopefully teaching others in the process. 

We decided to return strong with our now annual series on movie music: June Tunes! This month we will be covering various topics all involving music in movies. Today we’re starting with an all-time favorite! 

In the summer of 1980, a film that defied description raced into theaters. The Blues Brothers starred two big names from SNL, an all-star list of Rhythm and Blues legends, and one of the biggest budgets in comedy history. Even John Landis, the film’s director, wasn’t sure what genre the film belonged in. Is it a comedy? Musical? Forty years later, one thing is for certain: it’s a cult classic of epic proportions. 

Today we’re taking a look at The Blues Brothers, the history of the SNL sketch, the band, and the movie. We’re 369 miles from Chicago, have a full doc of research, it’s dark and we’re wearing headphones. Hit it!

History

    • SNL Sketch
      • Belushi and Aykroyd first came up with the idea for The Blues Brothers band while drinking at Aykroyd’s Speakeasy in Toronto, The 505 Club, in the fall of  1973. 
        • Belushi had come to town to poach talent for National Lampoon’s Radio Hour in New York, and had heard of the then-20-year-old Aykroyd.
          • They met backstage at Second City, a comedy troupe based in Chicago but with a branch in Toronto.
        • That night, the duo started listening to Blues records. At first, Belushi didn’t see himself much of a Blues fan, but Aykroyd’s devotion to the genre changed his mind. Very soon, the two young comedians shared this love, and they talked about creating a band. Howard Shore, the eventual music director for SNL and acclaimed composer, helped them come up with the name, “The Blues Brothers.” 
        • Two years later, the men join the first cast of  Saturday Night Live in New York, and have a chance to really develop the characters–Aykroyd played Elwood, the straight man and Belushi was Jake– the frontman and “Alpha Illinois male.” 
        • After the band played small gigs around town, Lorne Michaels allowed them to warm up the audience on SNL, but didn’t grant them actual air time. As the popularity of the characters grew, the mission became reacquainting audiences with The Blues.
        • Initially their first Blues sketch was a performance of Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee.” https://vimeo.com/154854279 
          • They were then billed as “Howard Shore and his All-Bee-Band.”
        • Their most famous sketch was a performance of “Soul Man” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FTWH1Fdkjow which was later referenced in an episode of Drake and Josh! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2J40z5ijPWo
      • When The Blues Brothers came to SNL a second time, the host was Steve Martin and they played “Hey Bartender.” 
      • After their initial success, Steve Martin asked them to open for him at the Universal Amphitheater, which was an issue because they didn’t have a concrete band at the time. After Belushi and Paul Shaffer put together a list of big names, they hand-picked the group.
      • One of the performances was recorded live and made into an album called, “Briefcase Full of Blues.” The album topped the charts and had some hit singles such as Soul Man and Hey Bartender.
        • With the help of Belushi’s wife, Judy and their friend Mitch Glazer, they developed the story behind The Blues Brothers for performances, a plot that would later become the centerpoint of their feature film.
        • With the success of the album and the reputation of Aykroyd and Belushi, many media outlets reported that they were lampooning the music, making fun of The Blues and its artists. Members of the band started doing interviews to convince people how serious “Dan and John” were about the band. Dan Aykroyd studied to learn the harmonica for his part, and John Belushi had been a Rock ‘n Roll drummer long before becoming a comedian. 
        • Aykroyd attributed this success to the fact that Disco was on its way out, and there was a lull in popular American music tastes as the next fad was waiting to begin.
    • The Band
      • The original members of the band were a combination of SNL band members and members that Howard Shore had suggested.  They were Steve “The Colonel” Cropper, Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Murphy ‘Murph’ Dunne, Willie “Too Big” Hall, Steve “Getdwa” Jordan, Birch “Crimson Slide” Johnson, Tom “Bones” Malone, “Blue” Lou Marini, Alan “Mr. Fabulous” Rubin, Tom “Triple Scale” Scott, and finally Paul “The Shiv” Shaffer. 
        • According to Steve Cropper, It ended up being one the best collections of blues musicians I’ve ever seen.”
        • One of the producers, Robert Weiss, pointed out the unique quality of the band: a Memphis fat-back rhythm with “slick” New York horns on top, combined with Belushi’s unique vocals and Aykroyd’s harp playing.
        • Dan Aykroyd described the band as a Chicago, electrified, urban Blues band.
  • Akroyd in an interview said “The Blues Brothers came off as a genuine article because we had Cropper and Dunn and Matt Murphy – those three magnificent Memphis guitar players. Murphy played with James Cotton, and Duck and Steve played on all those Stax/Volt records. That combination was a powerhouse that was not to be duplicated, a Chicago/Memphis fusion band. That’s what the Blues Brothers was and that’s what really made it work. They added legitimacy to our enterprise.”
      • When the boys approached Mat ‘guitar’ Murphy, they told him they would pay him “Six-fifty.” When Murphy found out that they meant $6,500, he reported that he almost fell out of his chair at the idea of making so much money.
    • Only a few of them made appearances in the movie. Paul Shaffer was replaced by Murphy “Murph” Dunne for the film.
      • On the Special Features section of the DVD, Dunne says that it was because of contractual obligations with SNL.
      • We also read that John Belushi was upset that Shaffer was splitting his creativity between the Blues Brothers and a different project with Gilda Radner.
    • After John Belushi’s death in ‘82 his brother Jim Belushi took over for him as Zee Blues.
    • Throughout the years the band members have changed but the soul is still there.
      • The members later said they had no idea that they would be playing with the same musicians for the rest of their lives.

The movie follows Jake and Elwood Blues, two brothers on a mission to save their home by raising 5000 dollars in just a couple days. 

Making Of

  • In 1978, John Belushi was on top of the world with a number one TV show, movie, and album. So, it seemed obvious to him and Dan Aykroyd that it was time to take this show to the big screen.
    • According to Vanity Fair, an Executive for Universal named Sean Daniel won the bid for the project and called his boss and said, “Belushi, Aykroyd, Blues Brothers, how about it?” to which his boss replied, “Great, I’ll tell Lew” Lew being Lew Wasserman, Universal Pictures’ “boss of bosses.”
      • Apparently there wasn’t much discussion after that, the movie seemed like a great idea to everyone involved. 
      • Wasserman wanted a budget of 12 million dollars for the film, while the filmmakers asked for 20 million. Budget and schedule would soon become two of the biggest issues this movie faced.
    • John Landis, the director of Animal House, was part of Belushi’s movie stardom and an obvious choice for director.
  • The infamous screenplay
    • Next came the question of who would write the film. Everyone turns to Dan Aykroyd, the 25-year-old mastermind who had written his own SNL sketches. The issue was that Aykroyd had never even read a screenplay. So, when he sat down to write it, he got carried away with his descriptions of sets and character profiles and tried to put all he “knew” of the Blues Brothers in one volume. It ended up being 324 pages long. 
    • When he delivered the screenplay to producer Robert Weiss, he jokingly bound it in such a way that it looked like a phone book.
    • John Landis took the screenplay and condensed it; while he recognized that the draft had great ideas and tone, he described it as “incoherent.” 
    • It took so long that the crew started shooting before they had a finished screenplay.
  • The Music
    • The music was hand-picked by Landis, Aykroyd and Belushi, and it was a meticulous process. Landis has spoken frustration at the fact that some don’t consider The Blues Brothers a musical, despite the fact that the cinematographer and director both had classic american movie musicals in mind while putting scenes together.
    • The cast and crew describe it as a “camouflaged” musical that captured the feeling of the city of Chicago and the times, but where characters didn’t exclusively burst into song to express emotion. Having characters break into song often doesn’t feel organic, but the film seemed to overcome that obstacle so the music feels naturally placed, and not just an action comedy with songs added.
    • Carlton Johnson choreographed the musical scenes, using only amateur dancers so no background players would upstage Belushi or Aykroyd (neither one of them were dancers.) 
      • For the scene with James Brown in the church, the movie brought in professional dancers, but it’s the only scene to do so.
      • “Shake Your Tail Feather” with Ray Charles was a huge musical number shot on the street in Chicago. It was freezing temperatures at the time, even though the scene takes place in summer. So, the dancers were in summer clothes and likely very cold
    • The Movie Band
      • The attitude of Jake Blues and his band on screen mirrored the attitudes of real life. Belushi gathered all the members together to pitch the movie, and told each that they were the “heartbeat” of the band. They had a few concerns like, how much would they get paid, who would get paid the most, and of course the ever-present concern that they were a white band playing black music.
      • Belushi handled every problem bandmates had, and Aykroyd referred to him as the leader.
    • The Guest stars
      • Another gigantic piece of the film was its legendary guest stars. One benefit to the time was that most of these R&B greats weren’t working as much anymore (with the exception of Ray Charles) and getting them to do the shoots was fairly simple. 
      • The cast and crew were star struck by these artists, their heroes. 
      • Aretha Franklin had issues lip syncing her number, simply because she never sang a song the same way twice. An incredible quality that partly made her the queen of soul, but difficult when you’re making a movie musical. 
        • Executives didn’t want Franklin in the picture as her popularity was waning at the time. They wanted Rose Royce, the band known for singing the hit theme for “Car Wash” but the team behind the movie refused.
        • The Diner scene featuring Franklin was not favored by critics, especially because “Blue” Lou Marini’s head is cut off while he’s dancing on the counter, which looked unintentional in the shot. It was actually intentional, John Landis thought it was a funny joke.
        • Franklin later said that her appearance broadened her audience and introduced new people to her.
      • James Brown was another act that didn’t sing a song the same way twice, so they pre-recorded everyone’s vocals in the church scene, and recorded Brown’s vocals live. They also recorded John Lee Hooker’s vocals live in the film.
        • Like we said before, this scene had professional dancers unlike other scenes in the movie, and utilized trampolines for aerial stunts.
      • Ray Charles’ vocals were pre-recorded.
      • Cab Calloway
        • Cab’s number was the most challenging, with a live audience of over 1000 people. They even advertised the show on the radio, and gave away prizes to people while they waited around for the shoot to start.
        • He wanted to record Minnie the Moocher, his signature song, as a disco track since that’s what was popular. He didn’t understand why the creators wanted the old fashioned way from 50 years before.
          • Landis said the first take of his song was mediocre, which made Cab angry. But, when he showed up to the live shoot, he was warm with people, a great performer, and happy to be there.
          • “When you’ve got good musicians, you don’t have to say anything. And if you don’t have good musicians, there’s nothing you can say”
  • The Cars
    • Dan Aykroyd is a vehicle fanatic in real life, who enjoys just driving for the sake of driving.
    • Elwood is a genius driver for this reason, and he chooses a decommissioned cop car because how else could someone out-run the cops but in one of their own cars?
      • Originally, the car was supposed to be magic, which would explain how it makes the jump over the bridge early in the film. There was a deleted scene where Elwood explained how the car was given special powers to do back-flips and other stunts.
      • The explanation was that they parked the car in a garage with powerful transformers, and soaked up that energy. 
    • There were 13 different Blues Mobiles, all used for different purposes in the film.
    • The scene where the Illinois Nazis are chasing Jake and Elwood, they used a model of the Blues Mobile and launched it into the air. For the Pinto, they used an actual car and dropped it from above the Chicago skyline. They had to get the car certified to ensure that it wouldn’t float past the designated area before crashing into the ground.
      • Each police car they purchased was $400 and they bought a total of 60.
    • The cars really were traveling over 100 miles per hour in downtown Chicago.
      • One of the other stunt drivers drove off of a ramp that was 150 ft long. Luckily only minor injuries were reported.
  • The Mall
    • The mall scene was shot in a real abandoned mall in Illinois, which was perfect so they could totally create and destroy the building.
    • There were hundreds of thousands of dollars in merchandise in some stores, and they meticulously decorated the whole space. There were stores marked that they could drive through and ones that they couldn’t. 
      • They had to hire guards to keep people from stealing the goods, but then guards started to steal. 
    • Every car in the parking lot was a brand new car on loan for the scene, and they could not hit them under any circumstances. 
    • Every weekend 40 stunt drivers were flown in and One of them was John Wayne’s son, Ethan Wayne.
  • The Big Finale Scene
    • Shortly before filming this big scene John Belushi hurt himself on a child’s skateboard. The best orthopedist in town had to be convinced to fix him up over the Thanksgiving weekend in order for him to be in good enough shape to dance and do cartwheels.
  • Production
    • The film’s final cost was $27.5 million. 
      • The salaries for the leads were set at the beginning and did not change throughout filming.
        • Dan Akroyd was paid half of what John Belushi was, $250,000 to Belushi’s $500,000.
      • Part of the reason that the film was wildly over budget was because the delayed shoots, which meant more man hours. This had a lot to do with John Belushi, who was an avid partier. 
        • Although Belushi was known as a partier, he was highly regarded among the band and the cast. He was known as the most loyal and friendly person in show business–as long as he decided you were friends, and he was often everyone’s friend.
      • There was a cocaine budget.
        • John Belushi felt that cocaine was crucial to his creative process. Carrie Fisher guessed that he was taking about 4 grams a day. It finally got so bad that Landis had to flush his drugs down the toilet and keep him away from them for the remainder of the shoot.
          • At one point, Landis threw away a bunch of cocaine and had a fight with John Belushi. Belushi got angry and stuck out his thumb, and a random car stopped and picked him up, and took him away–mid fight. 
          • Belushi got lost at one point during the filming, and someone saw him cross into a neighborhood so Aykroyd followed. He found that Belushi had crashed on a stranger’s couch.
            • Aykroyd called him “America’s Guest.” 
      • The realness of the film, also attributed to the cost. Blocking off city streets takes time and money, along with paying for stunt people to stand on the street and in the mall, so that no actual pedestrians were in danger.
    • Chicago
      • Mayor Daley of Chicago had made a rule that no filming was allowed there. He had passed away shortly before The Blues Brothers, which means it was the first major movie in a long time to be filmed there.
      • One of the biggest jokes of the movie was its scale, and the fact that they used real cars for their crashes and stunts helped with that level of visual destruction.
      • They actually did drive the car in the lobby of Daley Plaza.
      • 150 National Guardsman, 60 Chicago cops, 350 guns, 150 batons, 4 tanks, 3 helicopters were all used in filming.
        • They had a war room where they planned each staged gag and wanted to make the final scene as war-like as possible.

How the Movie was Received

  • Apparently The Los Angeles Times had called it a $30 million dollar wreck.
  • It became popular overseas in places like Australia. Landis said that it was the first movie to make more money overseas than in America.
    • One of the reasons that this may be is that it was booked in less than half the amount of movie theaters it should have been. Instead of the 1400, it was shown in 600, for the theater owners feared that a white audience would not like it. 
  • Fun Facts
    • Akroyd proposed to Carrie Fisher on set after saving her with the Heimlich maneuver while she choked on a brussel sprout. 
    • John Paul II was in Chicago at the time of filming and decided to visit the cast and crew!
    • In 2010 the film was deemed a Catholic Classic by the Vatican due to Jake and Elwood’s admirable mission to save the only family and home they know, the orphanage.

Starring

  • Main Stars
    • John Belushi/ Jake
    • Dan Aykroyd/ Elwood
  • Other Notables
    • Carrie Fisher/ Mystery Woman
    • John Candy/ Burton Mercer
    • Steven Williams/ Trooper Mount
      • Played Captain Fuller in the original 21 Jumpstreet show
    • John Landis/ Trooper La Fong
    • Frank Oz/ Corrections Officer
    • Twiggy/ Chic Lady
    • Henry Gibson/ Head Nazi
      • The Burbs and Luck of the Irish
  • Band Members as themselves
    • Matt Murphy
    • Steve Cropper
    • Donald Dunn
    • Lou Marini
    • Alan Rubin
    • Tom Malone
    • Murphy Dunne
  • Special Musical Guests
    • Cab Calloway/ Curtis
    • James Brown/ Reverend Cleophus James
    • Ray Charles/ Ray
    • John Lee Hooker/ Street Slim
    • Aretha Franklin/ Mrs. Murphy
  • Blink and You’ll Miss Them
    • Steven Spielberg – Audit Clerk
    • Chaka Khan – Choir soloist
    • Paul Reubens – waiter
      • You know, Pee Wee Herman.

We thought it was fitting to start our June Tunes with this comedy/action/musical film in the month and year that it turns 40. Happy Birthday, Blues Brothers!  

 

Sources

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