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Book review: The Blues Brothers: An Epic Friendship, the Rise of Improv, and the Making of an American Film Classic

The Blues Brothers: An Epic Friendship, the Rise of Improv, and the Making of an American Film Classic, by Daniel de Visé 

If you’re wondering whether the subtitle of this book oversells it a bit, as far as I’m concerned, the answer is a resounding “No.”

I was instantly taken with The Blues Brothers. When it showed up on HBO, my friends and I taped the songs and memorable dialogue on a cassette recorder so we could play them at will (the miracles of technology).

If you’re a devotee of the movie or a fan of the early Saturday Night Live, you’ll enjoy this thorough, authoritative, and lively book. If you’re not, it’s going to be a bit much; even I could have done with less of the John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd origin stories and didn’t need to know quite so much about the filming of every crash scene in the movie.

That said, once author Daniel de Visé works his way up to the start of SNL, this book is a lot of fun and ably recounts a truly important episode in American pop culture.

Belushi was the son of Albanian immigrants whose father owned a restaurant. Aykroyd was a Canadian who from a young age had an interest in performing. They both came up in the improv scene and broke through on Saturday Night Live, which was originally called “Saturday Night,” because a new but short-lived show hosted by the legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell got the name “Saturday Night Live” first.

Belushi was the bigger star but Aykroyd the greater comedic mind, between his creation of The Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters, as well as his many iconic SNL skits.

One of the pleasures of this book is reading about early SNL bits and then looking them up on YouTube. Invariably, they still hold up. Often, they are laugh-out-loud funny — manic, whimsical, and knowingly self-referential.

Pitched as TV for “the TV generation,” SNL was like nothing what had aired before and became an enormous hit when that still meant something. By its fourth season, about 40 percent of the TV audience was tuning in every Saturday night.

The first star who became bigger than the show was Chevy Chase, who was duly hated by Belushi and other performers. When Chase exited, Belushi took his place as the big dog. With his signature cocked eyebrow and great physical energy, Belushi was one of those comedians who entertain you just looking at him.

His drug use was an issue from early on, leading to all sorts of internal drama on the show. His life turned into a race between his meteoric rise and his drive toward self-destruction.

In 1979, Belushi was ill before an episode. The producer, Lorne Michaels, told the doctor who examined the star that he surely could perform, since the show was only an hour and a half long and he could rest afterward. The doctor objected. What’s the worst that could happen? Michaels asked. He could die, the doctor replied. What are the odds of that? Michaels wondered. The doctor said 50–50. “I can live with those odds,” said Michaels.

Belushi performed (just barely).

Aykroyd had the original interest in the blues, and turned Belushi on to the genre. Obsessed, Belushi would play 45s for friends and drop into clubs where he could sing a song with a live band.

So why not start an act? The musical director of SNL came up with the name of the duo, while Aykroyd sketched out the basic idea of the ne’er-do-well orphans who’d become musicians, lived in Chicago, and wore black suits and sunglasses day and night.

De Visé writes, “Formal dress linked the white bluesmen with the grand tradition of Black rhythm and blues. R&B icons of the pre- and post-war eras were always impeccably dressed.” B. B. King counseled dressing like you had to go to the bank for a loan. Musicians, meanwhile, wore sunglasses to hide their bloodshot eyes.

Michaels let the two front the SNL band to warm up the audience before shows, and they first performed on SNL in April 1978, with Belushi’s energy making up for any musical shortfalls.

It’s a tribute to Aykroyd and Belushi’s creative drive that they made the Blues Brothers a real band before it was a movie. They opened for Steve Martin on a run of shows in Los Angeles, and opened for the Grateful Dead. They jammed with the Rolling Stones and the Eagles.

Their first album, Briefcase Full of Blues, hit No. 1 on the Billboard album chart in 1979. It outperformed by a wide margin anything that B. B. King or Muddy Waters had done.

Today, probably none of this would happen, since it’d be considered such a flagrant act of cultural appropriation. There were complaints at the time about the two white comedians of questionable musical talent overshadowing real blues performers. But it was a passionate and sincere homage that increased the profile of the genre; certainly as a kid in suburban Virginia, I didn’t know anything about the blues prior to encountering it via the fictional brothers.

For the movie, Aykroyd traveled in Chicago and its environs, taking photos and getting inspiration. He wrote the script and then, in Aykroyd style, threw a printout of it wrapped in the cover of a Los Angeles telephone book onto the yard of producer Bob Weiss.

The movie, I hope I don’t need to tell you, relates the story of two brothers, “Joliet” Jake (Belushi), who has just been released from prison, and Elwood (Aykroyd), both of whom are former bluesmen. When they learn the Catholic orphanage where they were raised is at risk of getting foreclosed on because of an unpaid $5,000 tax bill, they resolve to get their band back together and make the money.

Director John Landis rewrote Aykroyd’s script. He added to Elwood’s famous line, “It’s 106 miles to Chicago. We have a full tank of gas and half a pack of cigarettes,” the kicker, “It’s dark and we’re wearing sunglasses.” (Belushi and Aykroyd had to be supplied with more than a hundred pairs of Ray-Ban Wayfarers to get through the filming.) Landis also came up with the iconic line for Elwood when the cops first start chasing them, “They’re not going to catch us. We’re on a mission from God.”

The Blues Brothers is largely a car-chase movie, beginning with the moment Elwood runs a red light in the Bluesmobile and is discovered by the cops to have been driving with a suspended license after racking up 116 parking tickets and 56 moving violations.

The stunts drove up the cost of the production and required endless creativity. In one scene, the Bluesmobile — there were 13 of them, all told — was loaded up with mercury to make it stand up on its rear wheels. In a scene on a freeway, the filmmakers had the help of the real police to block entrances for only one day, so they had to deploy extras dressed as cops to control the traffic on the second day.

Belushi’s prodigious drug abuse added delays and complications. He might wander off. One night, with his co-star missing, Aykroyd, based on a hunch, knocked on the door of a nearby suburban house. Aykroyd explained that they were making a movie and one of their actors was missing. The homeowner replied, “Yeah, I know. Belushi. He came in here about half an hour ago. He raided my fridge. He’s asleep on my couch.”

A couple of times paramedics had to be called to assist Belushi after near overdoses. When he danced a jig in one scene, he needed oxygen from a tank between takes. During the filming of the triumphant concert scene in the Palladium theater, an armed dealer showed up to try to collect money from Belushi.

During production, The Blues Brothers became an industry watchword for cost overruns and inevitable disaster. When it premiered, the reviews were awful, but it found its audience and, with a box office exceeding $100 million, more than justified the roughly $30 million spent on crashing all those cars. It achieved cult-classic status and boosted the careers of the likes of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Cab Calloway, who made memorable cameos.

The final part of this book is the depressing tale of Belushi’s march toward the overdose that would kill him at age 33. For several years, he was at the very pinnacle of American pop culture in multiple media. His contributions were brief but unforgettable, despite the sad end that surprised no one around him. When Lorne Michaels saw the body at the funeral, he remarked, “I’ve seen him look worse.”

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