The Blues Brothers might have been released right at the start of the 80s, but it’s also one of the decade’s most iconic movies. Often hailed as one of the best comedies ever made, director John Landis’ film helped establish Dan Aykroyd and the late John Belushi as film legends, and also played a part in reviving the careers of some of the musical legends who made cameo appearances. But did you know the following facts about the beloved movie?
25. There are some cameos you probably didn’t notice
The Blues Brothers famously centres on John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as the black-suited siblings of the title, and there are some notable big names in the supporting cast including Carrie Fisher and John Candy. However, there are a number of other well-known faces that pop up in the movie if you watch more closely.
For one, famed Muppeteer and director Frank Oz has a cameo as a corrections officer. Also, Paul Reubens (who found fame in the 80s as Pee-Wee Herman) plays a waiter just before the band gets back together. You might also notice that one of the singers in the church choir is the celebrated vocalist Chaka Khan.
24. The car wreckage from the pile-up scene was record breaking
Aside from the music, the most iconic thing about The Blues Brothers is the truly epic car chase that takes place in the film’s final scenes. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that quite a few cars were written off during filming. In fact, The Blues Brothers broke records with the number of cars destroyed during production: a staggering 103 motor vehicles were damaged beyond repair throughout the course of the shoot.
The Blues Brothers held this record for 20 years, before it was beaten by sequel Blues Brothers 2000 – which managed to wreck just one more car. However, since then this record has been buried by 2011’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, in which an insane 532 cars were destroyed.
23. Dan Aykroyd proposed to Carrie Fisher on set
- Credit: Universal Pictures
It’s not uncommon for co-stars to flirt on-set, and it’s not even that unusual for those flirtations to turn into a full-blown relationship. Somehow though, Dan Aykroyd and Carrie Fisher took their silver screen romance to the next level on the set of The Blues Brothers, as Aykroyd literally proposed to Fisher on-set. This may sound romantic, but the circumstances weren’t exactly glamorous: the story goes that Aykroyd gave Fisher the Heimlich manoeuvre to stop her from choking on a Brussel sprout, and popped the question right after.
The couple did indeed get engaged, and were together for a time, but Fisher ultimately left Aykroyd and married singer-songwriter Paul Simon. Following her untimely death in 2016, Aykroyd paid affectionate tribute to Fisher, remembering her as “one of the most hilarious minds of our aeon.”
22. It has serious cult classic status (particularly in Australia)
When you think of all-time cult classic midnight movies, chances are you might think of 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show. However, The Blues Brothers is another movie which enjoys a similarly obsessive fan following. Independent cinema screenings of the film regularly see audiences show up in costume, with fans singing along to all the songs as well as reciting all the dialogue along with the film.
Interestingly, the country where this Blues Brothers tradition is most popular is Australia. Up until the 1990s, the Melbourne Valhalla movie theatre would regularly rerun the film to packed houses.
21. It was predicted to flop after Belushi and Aykroyd’s earlier film 1941
- Credit: Universal Pictures/Columbia Pictures
We look back on The Blues Brothers as an all-time classic today, but expectations weren’t so high back in 1980. The film proved expensive (more on which later), and it was widely expected that studio Universal wouldn’t be making that money back. The main reason for this is that, despite the success of his earlier film Animal House, John Belushi was no longer considered a box office draw.
Before The Blues Brothers, Belushi and Dan Aykroyd had co-starred in Steven Spielberg’s largely forgotten 1979 comedy, 1941. This turned out to be Spielberg’s first flop, and because of this there were concerns that Belushi’s movie career was over, whilst Aykroyd (who would later appear in 80s comedy classics Trading Places and Ghostbusters) wasn’t considered a star at all.
20. It went way over budget
The Blues Brothers seemed to have the odds stacked against it from the beginning. On top of concerns about the film’s marketability, the cost of making the film also unexpectedly skyrocketed. When cameras started rolling in 1979, studio Universal had not finalised the film’s budget. Within the first month of filming, they were officially allocated $17.5 million – but it soon became clear this wasn’t enough.
By the end of production, The Blues Brothers wound up costing somewhere between $27-30 million. Today, that might not seem too expensive by Hollywood standards, but it was a lot at the time: for perspective, 1980’s biggest blockbuster The Empire Strikes Back only cost a few million more to make.
19. The prison scene ended up being a little too real
Everyone remembers the iconic prison scene which comes at the start of The Blues Brothers. Shooting this atmospheric opening proved an intense experience for the cast and crew. The footage was shot at Joliet Correctional Center, which was an actual working prison at the time. In order to get the shots needed, a camera crew was placed on a helicopter outside the prison.
Unfortunately, there must have been a lapse in communication as some guards in the prison were unaware that a helicopter was being used. Assuming that someone was staging an attempted prison break, guards came close to opening fire on the helicopter until the situation was clarified.
18. The iconic finale almost didn’t happen
No movie knows the meaning of the words ‘big finish’ more than The Blues Brothers. The film’s famously over-the-top car chase leads the way to huge, upbeat finale – but shooting this climactic scene was very nearly derailed when Belushi suffered an accidental injury. Just hours before filming, the impulsive comedy star saw a kid riding a skateboard, and asked if he could have a go.
You can guess what happened next: Belushi fell and wound up badly hurting himself. As a result of this, the actor had to be injected with painkillers as well as having his knee strapped up before filming the grand finale.
17. The budget made an allowance for recreational drugs
The Blues Brothers didn’t wind up going massively over-budget just because of production-based issues. Believe it or not, a portion of the budget had been set aside to pay for the drug habits of the cast and crew. Director John Landis has since admitted to this in interviews, and says that Belushi was by far the worst culprit. It got so bad that the director had to flush the actor’s stash down the toilet in the middle of the day, just to make sure he could continue to work.
And yet even when this happened, Belushi had a habit of meeting fans wherever they went, some of whom would simply give him drugs for free. Tragically, Belushi’s habit wound up taking his life in 1982, when he died from multiple drug intoxication aged just 33.
16. A former bodyguard of Richard Nixon was hired to keep Belushi away from drugs
Well into production on The Blues Brothers, director John Landis realised his liberal drug policy had backfired. John Belushi’s addiction had become a major problem, leading to significant delays, which in turn blew up the budget. Ultimately the director realised that rather than try to manage Belushi’s habit, he instead needed to stop it. Because of this, Landis hired bodyguard Smokey Wendell to watch over Belushi on and off set.
Wendell was hired for the express purpose of making sure that no narcotics would get into the actor’s hands. He had an illustrious history as a bodyguard, having previously worked as a Secret Service agent charged with protecting President Richard Nixon.
15. Belushi would disappear into strangers’ houses during filming
As we’ve seen, Belushi’s use of drugs and alcohol got so reckless, it’s a minor miracle they were able to get The Blues Brothers filmed at all. If the actor wasn’t worried about the rules while he was working, just imagine what he was like when he’d clocked out for the day. Well, in fact we don’t need to imagine, since one of his escapades has become almost as famous as the movie itself.
One day while shooting, Belushi simply disappeared when they were only half way through the shot list. The crew had to go looking for him, and found him fast asleep on the couch of a stranger in the middle of a residential area. Belushi had simply wandered into this completely unknown house uninvited, and proceeded to raid their fridge.
14. The characters originated in a Saturday Night Live sketch
- Credit: NBC
For viewers outside of the US, it probably seemed like the Blues Brothers characters were invented especially for the film. This is not the case, of course, as the characters originated on the famed TV comedy show Saturday Night Live. Belushi and Aykroyd both got their big break as comedians appearing in the original cast of the long-running sketch show.
The duo had first performed as The Blues Brothers in an SNL sketch back in 1976. This performance proved popular enough for them to bring the characters back, and eventually they formed a real Blues Brothers band. The act proved enough of a hit for the idea of a Blues Brothers movie to be posited in the wake of Animal House, the big screen breakthrough of both Belushi and director John Landis.
13. Dan Aykroyd’s script was over 300 pages long
Once the notion of a Blues Brothers movie was suggested, Dan Aykroyd took it upon himself to write the screenplay. There was one small problem there: Aykroyd had never written a motion picture screenplay. In fact, he’d never even read one. As a result, the eccentric comedian produced a script which was unconventional to say the least. Aykroyd’s Blues Brothers screenplay came in at 324 pages, or around three times longer than a typical first draft, and was written in free verse.
To make light of its length, Aykroyd submitted his tome (which took him six months to write) wrapped in the cover for the Los Angeles Yellow Pages. Director John Landis is credited as the film’s co-writer; his job in this regard was mostly to trim Aykroyd’s sprawling work into something manageable.
12. Steven Spielberg makes a brief appearance
We’ve already mentioned that a number of famous faces make cameo appearances in The Blues Brothers. There’s one more key cameo that we didn’t mention, from a figure who (particularly back in 1980) was a very big deal indeed. Towards the end of the movie, the Cook County Assessor’s clerk is portrayed by no less a figure than Steven Spielberg.
The Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind director had recently worked with Aykroyd and Belushi on the aforementioned misfire 1941. A few years later, Aykroyd would return the favour with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
11. Belushi would ‘hail police cars like taxis’ during production
In 1978, John Belushi had a remarkable streak of success which established him as something of a triple threat: a number one movie (Animal House), a number one show (SNL) and a number one album (Briefcase Full of Blues, by The Blues Brothers), all at the same time. In short, when The Blues Brothers started filming, Belushi was one of the most famous people in America – and given his anarchic nature, he began to take advantage of his fame just a little.
For instance, according to the film’s producer Mitch Glazer, Belushi would “literally hail police cars like taxis.” The star would wave his arm as a cop car passed, and “The cops would say, ‘Hey, Belushi!’ Then we’d fall into the backseat and the cops would drive us home.”
10. Some movie theatres wouldn’t book the film because they thought white audiences wouldn’t watch it
By 1980, major movies would often open nationwide in around a thousand cinemas across the US. Unfortunately, when The Blues Brothers first opened, only 594 theatres signed up to book it on release. This was due to theatre owners fearing that, because of its emphasis on blues and soul music, it would only appeal to black audiences.
This was a particular issue in more conservative areas of the US, specifically the Southern states. Allegedly theatre owners feared that white audiences wouldn’t go see it, whilst Mann Theatres chain owner Ted Mann didn’t want black cinema-goers going to white neighbourhoods to see it.
9. The cast had a private bar built on the set
So far, we’ve made it sound as if John Belushi was the only hell-raiser on the set of The Blues Brothers. This was by no means the case, however, as the cast and crew had no shortage of party animals. These hard-partying ways were also being catered for as part of the movie’s ballooning budget, and during production a private bar was opened on set specifically for the cast and crew.
Named the Blues Club, it was open not just to people working on production, but their friends as well. According to Carrie Fisher (who had substantial substance issues of her own), the bar’s staff doubled as drug dealers.
8. A car was dropped from 1,200 feet
The Blues Brothers was made long before CGI became the standard go-to measure for special effects. Back in those days, just about anything that could be done on camera for real was done on camera for real. This includes the eye-opening moment when a car is unwittingly driven off the end of an unfinished roadway, and hurtles towards the ground from a cartoonish height.
To get the shot, director John Landis had the car dropped from a helicopter at a height of 1,200 feet. This was so high that the Federal Aviation Administration feared the car might become too aerodynamic and crash into nearby Chicago buildings on the way down.
7. A single scene cost $3.5 million to shoot
It’s no surprise that The Blues Brothers cost as much to make as it did, considering the chaotic production – but it was one quite deliberate choice made by the crew that ended up costing producers more than anything else. A single sequence towards the end of the film, shot at Chicago’s Daley Plaza over Labor Day weekend, cost a staggering $3.5 million – more than 10% of the film’s overall budget.
For perspective, $3.5 million was $500,000 more than the entire budget of Landis and Belushi’s previous collaboration Animal House. The scene carried such a high price tag because it required tanks, helicopters and several hundred actors.
6. Pope John Paul II blessed the set
It’s not unusual that high profile feature films might also have some high profile visitors to the set. The Blues Brothers had their share of these, some of whom wouldn’t come as too big a surprise. Belushi and Aykroyd’s former SNL cast mate Bill Murray popped by, as did Chicago’s mayor Jane Byrne. However, one visitor to The Blues Brothers set might be a bigger surprise: Pope John Paul II.
The figurehead of the Catholic Church was in Chicago at the time, and was invited to meet the cast and crew. According to the film’s producer Robert K Weiss, “All the Catholics in our crew just hit the floor.” This included Belushi, who was photographed kissing the Pope’s ring.
5. The Vatican declared the film a “Catholic classic” in 2010
The Blues Brothers has a wacky slapstick take on religion, and doesn’t seem like a film that the Vatican would entirely be able to get on board with. Yet in actuality, The Blues Brothers has been proclaimed to be a ‘Catholic classic’ of cinema. The Church’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, paid tribute to The Blues Brothers on its 30th anniversary in 2010.
The paper praised Jake and Elwood’s perseverance to save a Catholic orphanage from closing at all costs. Of the key figures in the film, only Belushi was raised Catholic. Aykroyd subscribes to Spiritualism, whilst director John Landis is of Jewish descent but has declared himself an atheist.
4. John Belushi donated $200,000 to Chicago orphanages to secure permission to film in the city
Under Richard J Daley, who had been Chicago mayor from 1955 to 1976, it hadn’t been easy to get films made in the city. Daley assumed that the only reason anyone wanted to shoot there was to tell stories of corruption or gangsterism. Although Chicago had a new, more lenient mayor Jane Byrne by 1978, there were still concerns about getting permission to film.
However, the cast and crew were adamant that The Blues Brothers had to be filmed in Chicago. For this reason, John Belushi took it upon himself to make a sizeable donation to the city in order to be granted access to shoot there. The comedian offered $200,000 donation to Chicago orphanages, which Mayor Byrne happily accepted, and then signed off on the film.
3. The production kept 12 Bluesmobiles as spares
After Belushi’s Jake and Aykroyd’s Elwood, arguably the third key character in the movie is the Bluesmobile. This is, of course, the old disused police car in which Elwood picks up his brother from jail. As we’ve already noted, the crew of The Blues Brothers went through a whole lot of cars during the shoot. This being the case, it should come as no surprise that the team had plenty of spare ex-cop cars just in case.
All in all, there were 13 different ‘Bluesmobiles’ available to use during the film’s production. The crew bought a baker’s dozen of 1974 Mount Prospect Dodge Monaco cars at a police auction held by the California Highway Patrol.
2. The original version of the film was so long it had an intermission
Shooting without a formalised script inevitably leads to certain challenges, particularly once the film is in the editing suite. John Landis and his Blues Brothers cast and crew ended up shooting more than they needed. Once filming was over, Landis turned in a cut that clocked in at more than two and a half hours. This was unusually long for a comedy; so long, in fact, that it had an intermission (once a common feature in theatrical films which has since been largely abolished).
In the end, the studio ordered the director to trim the running time of The Blues Brothers by roughly 25 minutes. Still, at 133 minutes, it remains a pretty long film; to this day, comedies generally clock in at closer to 90 minutes.
1. The studio wanted to replace the musicians with younger acts like Rose Royce
It’s difficult to imagine The Blues Brothers without such legendary artists as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and James Brown making unforgettable cameos. However, had studio Universal had their way, none of these icons of blues and soul would have featured at all. Instead, executives at Universal wanted appearances from musical artists that were more ‘contemporary’ in 1978.
One such act the studio wanted was Rose Royce, best known for their disco hit Car Wash. Thankfully, John Landis and the team held firm, insisting that only true musical greats of years gone by would appear in the film.