“It’s 106 miles to Chicago. We’ve got a full tank of gas. Half a pack of cigarettes. It’s dark and we’re wearing sunglasses. Hit it!” The music, dance moves, angry Nazis, belligerent cowboys and police chases are just some of what made The Blues Brothers such an iconic film. This summer the major motion picture will be celebrating its 40th anniversary on what’s been a timeless classic since its debut in 1980. From what was once a small Saturday Night Live sketch to a silver screen phenomenon of rhythm and blues. Comedic veterans Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi submitted a best-selling act that transcended expectations and revived a genre that was all but forgotten.
In 1978, Aykroyd thought of the idea on creating a “fake blues band” for an open slot on SNL. A native of Canada, Aykroyd always had a proclivity towards music and a penchant for the blues genre. Aykroyd approached his friend and SNL co-star John Belushi with the idea and making it reality. Belushi, a heavy metal fan, loved the idea and took it upon himself to begin forming the band. Paul Shaffer, an SNL composer and renowned jazz pianist, would be the first recruited into the group. Belushi and Shaffer would then assemble the rest of the band comprising of acclaimed artists in the genre. As Aykroyd says, “John and I were actors. We had to learn to pretend to be musicians, singers and dancers.”
The Blues Brothers would make its SNL debut opening for the show’s intended musical star of the night: Willie Nelson. The reception of the group was overwhelming and became a reoccurring sketch on the show. The band would then start performing in front of Hollywood’s elite stars including: Jack Nicholson, Steve Martin and Carrie Fisher. “As it evolved over time, the mission was to reacquaint people with this tremendous form of American music.”, says Aykroyd. The band’s popularity would be capitalized on when Universal won the rights to star the group in their own movie.
Animal House director and Belushi’s friend, John Landis, would be chosen to direct the film with Aykroyd writing the screenplay. As the old saying goes: “the rest is history.” The film’s premiere revitalized a genre during a time when audiences were wondering what the next fad would be. Along with the rebirth of a genre came The Blues Brothers cemented status as pop culture icons. But what made the film so quintessential and historic?
An all-star ensemble of blues and soul’s biggest pioneers is just part of that answer. James Brown, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker and Cab Calloway all had their place within the film. Other high-profile actors noted for their cameo appearances included that of John Candy and Carrie Fisher. However, the arguably most famous appearance is that of Aretha Franklin. Her acting debut in the film introduced a new generation to the star and reignited the career of “The Queen of Soul”. Much like the soundtrack, the comedic writing and quips made the film that much more memorable. All the while a prime Belushi and Aykroyd showcased their talents as actors and improvisers through quotable dialogue and character interactions. The rest of the film would rely on divine intervention through its storytelling on redemption and endless action.
Through the rest of the 1980s other blues artists would enter the mainstream such as: Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jeff Healey and John Mayall with credit to the film. Over the years the film would be referenced in the media through tv shows, video games and other works of art. To this day Aykroyd maintains the legacy of the group and that of the late Belushi. In an interview at the House of Blues Aykroyd says, “I just miss John the most when I walk into these places.” Since his passing, Belushi’s memory is kept alive through the film and Aykroyd. The comedic actor shows his love for Belushi best by saying, “I just hope John is waiting for me on the other side.”
Right now, The Blues Brothers are still “on a mission from God.” The film will continue to entertain generations to come on what made it such a catalyst for revitalizing an entire culture. Its status as a cult classic guarantees preservation for its significance to music and the legacy of the artists. As the years pass, The Blues Brothers will be there to remind others that “everybody needs somebody to love.”
Written by Trenton Luber