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‘Blues Brothers’ 40th anniversary: Looking back at the ‘best movie ever made in Chicago’ and its legacy

In 2005, the Sun-Times published a five-part series looking at the worldwide impact of the iconic movie — and what happened to the Chicago people and places featured in the film.

Elwood and Jake Blues, aka Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi
Sun-Times files

EDITOR’S NOTE: The “Blues Brothers” was released nationwide on June 20, 1980. To mark the 40th anniversary of the movie, a watershed film for Chicago that spread the city’s soul around the world, the Sun-Times over the next five days is republishing a series of stories first printed on its 25th anniversary in 2005. The series, the newspaper said at the time “takes you back to the streets of Jake and Elwood Blues and checks out what’s happened since the Bluesmobile rolled.”

This story was first published on June 20, 2005.

A quarter-century ago, “The Blues Brothers” embraced Chicago as no other film has, before or since. The movie tapped directly into the heart of the city, harnessing its energy and will to get things done on a scale bigger than anywhere else. It exploited its sense of humor and willingness to laugh at itself.

In turn, Chicago opened its arms to the film in a way that seems unlikely now. The end result is a movie that established itself in the minds of many as one of the classic comedies — indeed movies — of all time.

Even 25 years later, it plays on television hundreds of times a day, shown in any one of 45 countries, director John Landis said.

“It’s really attained some kind of mythic stature,” Landis said. It “has become part of the culture.”

No one would suggest this musical comedy with cartoon-like characters was on par with “Citizen Kane” or other cinematic masterpieces. It’s a simple story of a pair of orphaned, misfit brothers — “Joliet” Jake and Elwood Blues — trying to reunite their band in an effort to save their orphanage.

But it took on issues of the day in its own way. It poked fun at the Nazis, who had recently been granted the right to march in Skokie by the U.S. Supreme Court. It took jabs at the Catholic Church, the tax-collecting Cook County assessor and the Board of Education.

Taken during the filming of the Blues Brothers, this photo shows Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi crashing into the City County building after driving through Daley Plaza in the summer of 1979.
Jim Frost/Sun-Times

A drive through the Daley Center

Even the movie’s climax transcended the farcical car chase on the screen. Former Mayor Jane Byrne says that by allowing the Bluesmobile to plow through Daley Plaza and crash through the glass walls of the Daley Center lobby, she was striking a blow at the heart of the Democratic machine.

Landis said in light of how Chicago Police treated protesters at the 1968 Democratic convention, “it gave me great pleasure to drive through the Richard J. Daley Center.”

Despite that knock on his father, the current Mayor Daley calls the movie “classic” and “fun.”

But while the Daley Plaza scene occurred at the center of the city, the movie also took viewers around the world to parts of Chicago rarely seen on the big screen before. Many will never be seen again. The original Maxwell Street Market, prominently featured, is gone. The Plymouth Hotel, where the Blues Brothers slept as L trains rumbled by, was demolished in 1991, signaling the end of the Loop’s seedier side. Most of Harvey’s closed Dixie Square Mall, site of an over-the-top car chase, has been undeveloped for a quarter-century.

It also showed off the dark streets below the L, Lower Wacker, the steel mills, Lake Shore Drive and that funny-looking Picasso.

“Chicago is one of the stars of the movie,” said Dan Aykroyd, who played Elwood and co-wrote the movie. “We wrote it as a tribute.”

It also hailed rhythm and blues. It was the first feature for Aretha Franklin and John Lee Hooker. It showcased such blues favorites as “Sweet Home Chicago.”

The movie is the sixth-highest-grossing musical of all time, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com. And the $400 million House of Blues live music empire can be connected to the characters’ popularity. There are dozens of Blues Brothers tribute bands around the world.

The movie was the first time the “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin starred in a feature film.
Blues Brothers/Sun-Times files

Since then — a film catalog

The movie also had a profound impact on filmmaking in Chicago, establishing it as an attractive venue for decades, before more recent upstarts like Toronto crowded the scene. “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “The Fugitive” and “Barbershop” are just a few of the nearly 200 major motion pictures that have been shot in Chicago since then.

Its influence on other movies was wide — it has been referenced or spoofed in some 70 other films, according to the Internet Movie Database. It remains a part of pop culture even today: Just last month, the Fox show “Family Guy” did a cartoon re-creation of the mall chase.

“You have to credit ‘The Blues Brothers’ with putting Chicago very much on the Hollywood radar,” said Rich Moskal, director of the Chicago Film Office. His agency was created after the movie was made, to help future productions. Until that point under the first Mayor Daley, Chicago had all but blocked movies from filming here.

The filming itself was a major event for Chicago. It pumped an estimated $12 million into the local economy during the 3 1/2 months crews were in the area.

John Belushi, a Chicago native who grew up in Wheaton, was so popular at the time he could simply flag down police cars and they would take him wherever he wanted to go, recalls his widow, Judy Belushi Pisano, who is writing a book about his life, “Belushi.” John Belushi died in 1982 at 32 from a drug overdose.

Filmmakers closed the Kennedy Expy. in both directions, dropped a car from more than 1,000 feet in the air near Lake Shore Drive, raced cars along Loop streets at more than 100 mph and even took over Daley Plaza for a three-day weekend. Such stunts would be unlikely now, Moskal said. Residents, unaccustomed to seeing Hollywood live, called local newspapers aghast at the car chases they witnessed.

For some Chicagoans, the movie led to lucrative careers. Assistant director David Sosna, originally from Glencoe, has had a similar post on 20 additional films, from “Jaws 3” to “Coming to America.” Lowly production assistant Billy Higgins, of McHenry, is now executive producer of “The Perfect Man,” released last week. Chicago location manager Julie Chandler, of Rogers Park, went on to work on 40 other films.

Now a cult classic

Murphy Dunne, son of former Cook County Board President George Dunne, has since appeared in several movies, TV shows and commercials. But he is still recognized as the Blues Brothers’ goofy keyboardist.

“To be part of a cult classic is very much a thrill,” Murphy Dunne said.

The flick has cultivated a young fan base across the globe. It was the first film to gross more money overseas than at home, Landis said. More than half of the nearly 4,000 members of Blues Brothers Central, the largest fan website, are under 30 and live outside the United States, said site founder Chris Rossi, 21, of southern Australia.

“A lot of younger people have become fans of blues and soul music because of this movie,” said Rossi.

Nor does the movie seem dated to many Chicagoans, who identify with Jake and Elwood, essentially two guys from the neighborhood — “which comprises a large part of what the city is all about,” said Tim Samuelson, the city’s cultural historian. “Here they are showcased and doing amazing adventures so everyone can relate to them and vicariously live through them.”

“It still seems like real Chicago.”

Three orange whips

But beyond that, the movie has endured for so long, quite simply, because it was funny. The characters were created by Aykroyd and Belushi, two guys from Second City, Chicago’s lasting contribution to comedy. They first became popular on “Saturday Night Live” before making it to the big screen.

“How much for the little girl?” “We’re on a mission from God.” “Orange whip? Orange whip? Three orange whips.” Those classic lines have been repeated so many times they are almost cliche.

It seems almost comical now that initially, highbrow critics from the East and West coasts didn’t like the movie — Newsweek called it “desperately unfunny,” while the Los Angeles Times called it a “$30 million wreck.”

Chicago’s reviewers, on the other hand, figured it out right away: “What is a little startling about this movie is somehow it all works,” wrote the Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert on the day of the movie’s release, June 20, 1980. “There is even room, in the midst of the carnage and mayhem, for a surprising amount of grace, humor and whimsy.”

Late reviewer Gene Siskel took it a step further: “‘The Blues Brothers’ is the best movie ever made in Chicago.”

Twenty five years later, many would argue that’s still the case.

THE BLUES BROTHERS PHENOMENON

The film’s take through 2005:

  • Movie theater box office: $115 million
  • Soundtrack sales: Over one million sold
  • Original budget: $12 million
  • Final budget: $27 million
  • Source: BoxOfficeMojo.com, research