During the first season of Saturday Night Live, one of the first recurring skits – on a show famous for them – involved cast members appearing onstage in bee suits. With the exception of the “killer” bees skit, which featured the bees as mustachioed Mexican bandits, none of these appearances were very memorable, and the cast and writers grew tired of the bit. However, one appearance of the bees would have an unexpectedly enduring result.
On that occasion, on January 17, 1976, cast members John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd donned bee suits to perform the Slim Harpo blues number “I’m a King Bee.” Belushi, who had previously shown his performing acumen by imitating Joe Cocker, belted out the song, while Aykroyd played harmonica in the background. Although Belushi goofed around with the standard soul-man move of directing the horn section to stop and start on cue, he and Aykroyd performed the song with genuine enthusiasm and some skill. It was the earliest incarnation of an act that would later take on a life of its own: The Blues Brothers.
Few could foresee in January of 1976 that a low-concept skit on a late-night comedy show would eventually lead to three best-selling record albums, several Top 40 hits, concert tours featuring an all-star band, and two major motion pictures, the first of which has become a cult classic. That movie, The Blues Brothers, originally released on June 20, 1980, has – unlike most of the other films inspired by Saturday Night Live skits – exhibited cultural staying power.
Despite being a big-budget, major-studio picture that made a lot of money, it has all the hallmarks of a cult movie: quotable dialogue, vivid set pieces, and a rebellious sensibility expressed through anti-heroes with their own code of ethics and a willful disregard of authority. Oddly enough, it’s also a throwback to a genre not much in evidence by the late 20th century – the movie musical. On its 35th anniversary, Bio looks back at this strange hybrid of a movie and traces its long journey from comedy skit to major motion picture.
Birth of the Blues Brothers
The impetus for the Blues Brothers as a band came from Dan Aykroyd. Aside from being a gearhead, Aykroyd was a diehard fan of blues music. When he lived in Canada in the early 70s, he sometimes performed with local blues bands there. He also saw many blues greats who passed through town since Ottawa had a popular blues club. He even ran his own club for a time, which was where he first met John Belushi, who was visiting town in search of new comedic talent.
Belushi, who was from Chicago, the pre-eminent blues town in the U.S., ironically listened mostly to hard rock music. But Aykroyd’s passion was infectious, and when Aykroyd finally moved to the States to join the cast of Saturday Night (then sans the Live), Belushi’s interest in blues increased. The two would play small gigs with local blues bands around town and regularly pestered Saturday Night’s producer, Lorne Michaels, to let them play on the show. Eventually, Michaels relented and allowed them to warm up the crowd before the live broadcast started; finally, he let them play “I’m a King Bee” on-air during the January 1976 broadcast that marked the national debut of the Blues Brothers.
Although they had finally made their television debut, the Blues Brothers would take a backseat to John Belushi’s comedy career for almost two years. In late 1977, Belushi began to film National Lampoon’s Animal House. He would continue to work on Saturday Night Live at the same time as he was making the film, and during the 1977 - 78 season, Belushi and Aykroyd rented out a bar on Hudson Street in Manhattan for post-show parties. Newly inspired by the harmonica player from the blues band Roomful of Blues, Belushi and Aykroyd revived the Blues Brothers. Adopting the dark suits and skinny ties of Chicago bluesmen of the 1950s (who, it has been said, dressed like traveling salesmen so that the police wouldn’t hassle them when they were on tour), they concocted a distinct image for their performances. Aykroyd’s writerly instincts took over and he invented a back story for two characters he dubbed Joliet Jake and Elwood, eccentric petty criminals from Chicago with a talent for performing black R&B.
By the time the Blues Brothers reappeared on Saturday Night Live in April of 1978, the mythology was complete. Dressed in their soon-to-be trademark dark suits, Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses, and black fedoras, they looked like hip funeral directors. Opening the show as part of a parody of the popular late-night music program “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert,” they performed as that week’s musical guest, a highly unusual arrangement since the musical guest on Saturday Night Live was usually a well-established group.
The host of the show that night was comedian Steve Martin, still in the first flush of his own success. Martin asked Belushi and Aykroyd to open his series of Los Angeles performances in September as the Blues Brothers, and with the help of Saturday Night Live band director Paul Schaffer, Belushi and Aykroyd assembled an impressive roster of veteran blues and soul musicians from New York and Memphis. The all-star band rehearsed over the summer, and the September 9th concert opening for Steve Martin was recorded and eventually released as the first Blues Brothers album, Briefcase Full of Blues.
To promote the LP, the Blues Brothers returned to Saturday Night Live that November. The appearance was memorable. After an announcement by cast member Garrett Morris in the style of an MC for an R&B revue, the band started to play a soul vamp, an up-tempo riff originally recorded by Otis Redding. From the wings entered Jake (Belushi) and Elwood (Aykroyd), Elwood carrying a black valise handcuffed to his wrist. Jake produced a key, unlocked the handcuff, and Elwood drew a harmonica from the already unlocked bag. The opening riff ended and a new song began, the intro for the Sam and Dave classic “Soul Man.” Jake and Elwood stood stoically mid-stage, their hands clasped in front of them, as if waiting for a bus. The intro ended, the horn section blared, and as if a string had been pulled or a button pushed, the Blues Brothers began to dance wildly to the music.
Hooray for Hollywood
The Blues Brothers’ combination of classic R&B music with a comedic accent proved to be a hit with listeners and the record industry alike. Briefcase Full of Blues went double platinum (sales of over 2 million copies) and spawned two Top 40 hits, “Rubber Biscuit” and “Soul Man.” A concert tour followed with Belushi and Aykroyd in character for the entire run. By this time, Belushi was a big star, his movie Animal House the third biggest grossing movie of 1978, while Saturday Night Live continued to be one of the most popular shows on television, despite Belushi’s declining involvement.
It wasn’t long before Hollywood expressed interest. Anything with such a proven track record was not bound to escape attention, and the director of Animal House, John Landis, saw the beginnings of his next project. He, Belushi, and Aykroyd met and began to work together on formulating what a Blues Brothers motion picture might be. Universal Pictures rubberstamped it, barely even inquiring what the movie would be; it would feature Belushi, the hottest comedy actor in America, which was all they needed to know.
Aykroyd, who had never written a movie screenplay before, composed an epic treatment so large that when he sent it to the film’s producer, Bob Weiss, he had it bound in a phonebook cover to show that he was aware of its ludicrous length. Weiss told Landis to turn it into a workable script, and Landis hacked away at Aykroyd’s phone book until he had a screenplay with a more realistic page count. Production dates had already been set, however, and the movie began to film without a final script. The version you see, a mish-mash of comedy, action, and music, would be finalized during the production.
Sweet Home Chicago
Shooting of the movie began on location in Chicago in July of 1979. Aykroyd has referred to Chicago as one of the stars of the movie, and the city was key to the atmosphere of the film. Chicago was also John Belushi’s hometown, and he strode the metropolis like a conquering king. This could be both comic and damaging – Belushi had developed an appetite for drugs, especially cocaine, and the friendly people of Chicago, proud of their native son’s success, made sure that he got his fill. Aykroyd and Belushi set up a Chicago branch of their blues bar, and it became party central for the production.
After filming began, it became clear that the generous budget allotted the film would be inadequate. Belushi was responsible for numerous delays since he was often too impaired to work, while the over-the-top action scenes involving multitudes of crashing police cars resulted in a hemorrhage of money. (The production eventually established a 24-hour auto repair shop to keep the various cars in the movie in service, which included 13 different versions of the Bluesmobile.) Universal higher-ups exploited connections with Chicago politicians – as well as with other, more shadowy individuals long indigenous to Chicago – to make the unthinkable happen, including a speeding car chase through the lobby of the Daley Center and 100 mile-an-hour pursuits through major arteries of the city.
As filming lumbered on and costs escalated, Universal began to lose faith in the project. Belushi’s most recent film, 1941, had been a box office bomb, tarnishing his star appeal, and his wild lifestyle was already beginning to sabotage his career. Both Aykroyd and Landis tried to tame Belushi’s appetite for cocaine (Landis once flushed a “mountain” of it down the toilet and got in screaming matches with Belushi on set), but Belushi’s wayward ways continued. He didn’t settle down until the production moved to Los Angeles in October.
Wrap It Up
In Los Angeles, musical sequences featuring R&B and soul legends James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Cab Calloway were filmed, as was the climactic concert of the movie. Although somewhat better behaved since arriving in L.A., Belushi had fallen off a skateboard and hurt his knee right before the concert sequence where he had to do a cartwheel and dance with Aykroyd. The hobbled actor eventually went ahead and suffered through the sequence. The film wrapped in November, two months late and millions of dollars over budget.
After a laborious editing process, the movie would be released at two hours and ten minutes, still very long for a comedy. Few had high expectations for the bloated, ill-starred production that seemed to have cinematic schizophrenia. Was it a comedy? A smash- ’em-up? A musical?
Of course, it was all three of these things. The final film was an energetic romp with a feather-light story that didn’t get in the way of a song by a music legend, a car chase, or a running gag (Landis was responsible for one of the most popular, Elwood’s assertion that “We’re on a mission from God”). The screenwriters jammed in a pack of angry “Illinois Nazis,” a crazed beautician with a rocket launcher, a supernatural nun, a club full of boisterous rednecks, and a series of cameo appearances by the famous (John Lee Hooker, Steven Spielberg, Twiggy) and soon-to-be famous (Pee Wee Herman, John Candy). The heart of the movie beat in the musical sequences, however – James Brown as a preacher, Aretha Franklin as a waitress, Ray Charles as the proprietor of a music store, and Cab Calloway as the janitor at Jake and Elwood’s orphanage. Although their songs were inferior versions of their original recordings, these R&B stars exuded an energy in their sequences that buoyed the movie whenever they appeared on-screen.
Going Down Slow
The Blues Brothers came out in June 1980. Critical reception was mixed and the initial opening was light. Although it’s hard to believe now since the film followed the adventures of two white men, executives fretted that the film was “too black” and booked it lightly in suburban theaters; once it caught on, though, the film was booked widely and became a hit. It had cost almost $30 million dollars to make, which made it by far the most expensive comedy ever made up until that time (by way of comparison, Belushi’s Animal House cost $3 million). The movie was not an out-of-the-box hit, which worried Universal, but it earned over $100 million by the end of its domestic and foreign runs, eventually becoming the 10th highest-grossing movie of 1980. The movie soundtrack also did well, producing another Top 40 hit (“Gimme Some Lovin’”) and occupying the charts for the rest of the year.
Living up to the movie poster’s slogan “The show that really hits the road,” Belushi and Aykroyd toured again as the Blues Brothers following the release of the soundtrack and once more were a big draw for comedy and music fans. The road would be a short one, however, and the end would soon be reached. After the release of a live album documenting the tour, the original Blues Brothers band ceased to exist for a simple reason: John Belushi ceased to exist. On March 5, 1982, he died from a cocaine and heroin overdose.
Despite its difficult history, The Blues Brothers would have a lasting effect on movie comedy. It proved that audiences enjoyed a dose of action and spectacle with their humor. Big hits that followed like Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, and Beverly Hills Cop would have been inconceivable without its blueprint. At the same time, the film marked the last gasp of the maverick streak evident in so much ’70s American cinema. Its anti-heroes would be one of the final strains of a breed of anti-authoritarian comedy that would soon be replaced by the friendlier, less political comedies of the ’80s, where “Illinois Nazis” were not likely to be found and the mall was a social nexus instead of a place to be despised and destroyed (“This place has got everything,” Jake sarcastically remarks as the Bluesmobile crashes into stores). Movie comedy would change in its wake, for good or for ill.
From a musical perspective, reaction to the film over the years has been ambivalent. Some critics of the film contend that it neutered the power and muted the authenticity of the music it intended to celebrate. The Blues Brothers made the blues safe for comedy, and it turned gritty R&B songs into what essentially amounted to show tunes in a musical. The cartoonish representation of the blues embodied by Jack and Elwood was regarded by some as a watering down (or whitening out) of the original music, a trend that would inevitably lead to the likes of Bruce Willis and The Commitments. In the long run, authentic black expression would be shunted aside in favor of the simulation popularized by the film. A rubber biscuit, indeed.
Supporters of the film’s approach to music, on the other hand, believe that the film performed a public service by refocusing attention on some of America’s greatest performers at a time when they were being neglected and forgotten. Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Cab Calloway, and John Lee Hooker all had an uptick in their careers because of The Blues Brothers (Aretha Franklin in particular would kick off a new phase of her career in the 80s generated by the initial lift of the movie). To some extent, once this mainstream movie codified their importance to blues and soul music, these artists would henceforth be regarded as the music’s greatest practitioners.
Because its popularity never dimmed over the years, an attempt was made almost 20 years later to replicate the unique qualities of The Blues Brothers: A sequel, Blues Brothers 2000, was released in 1998. Unfortunately, it added little to the formula of the original, despite more cameos from great blues and soul stars. There was no adequate replacement for the charisma that Belushi brought to the first movie, and although three new actors were employed to make up the loss, the film still fell flat. Unlikely to be celebrated with an anniversary edition in 2023, the sequel simply proved that the trick of the original film was unrepeatable. Although there were murmurs a few years ago about a possible TV show featuring the Blues Brothers characters, and just last week Aykroyd mentioned a possible straight-to-video release including John Belushi’s brother Jim, nothing has yet developed for certain. Maybe that’s better – The Blues Brothers can stand on its own as a worthy movie comedy coda to the 70s and a harbinger of the 80s to come.