Incredible stunt driving in ‘The Blues Brothers’ ‘was all real’

For much of “The Blues Brothers,” Jake and Elwood race from place to place: along Lower Wacker Drive, under the L tracks, over a gaping 95th Street bridge as it opens, and through a south suburban mall.

SHARE Incredible stunt driving in ‘The Blues Brothers’ ‘was all real’
The great car chase in “The Blues Brothers” involved 40 stunt drivers and 13 Bluesmobiles and dozens of Chicago area locations.

The great car chase in “The Blues Brothers” involved 40 stunt drivers and 13 Bluesmobiles and dozens of Chicago area locations.

MGM

Editor’s note:The story was originally published on June 23, 2005, as part of a weeklong series to commemorate the 25th anniversary of “The Blues Brothers.” The Sun-Times is republishing the stories to mark the 40th anniversary of the movie in 2020.

Call it the mother of all modern car chase movies.

For much of “The Blues Brothers,” Jake and Elwood race from place to place: along Lower Wacker Drive, under the L tracks, over a gaping 95th Street bridge as it opens, and through a south suburban mall.

The chases usually end with one or several of Illinois’ finest in some sort of pile-up. When the film was released in 1980 it set a record for the number of cars crashed in a movie, according to the Internet Movie Database.

In his review, Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert called the chases “incredible” and “sensational.”

Whereas in movies today computer graphics are often used to enhance a stunt, filmmakers had no such aid when they were shooting in 1979. “That was all real,” director John Landis said.

Filmmakers flew in 40 stunt drivers every weekend. They used 13 different Bluesmobiles, including five for filming John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as they portrayed Jake and Elwood Blues driving about town.

Two other cars were built specifically for speed while another three had one-gallon gas tanks and were used for jumps, said Jerram Swartz, an assistant director who oversaw the fleet.

Yet another was rigged to fall apart with the pull of a lever, used for just one scene: when the Blues Brothers finally arrive at the Cook County Building after a long chase. First assistant director David Sosna remembers it took a mechanic several months to rig the car up. “That is a very expensive gag,” he said.

Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi are shown in the Bluesmobile at the intersection of Washington and Dearborn near the end of the great chase scene for “The Blues Brothers.”

Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi are shown in the Bluesmobile at the intersection of Washington and Dearborn near the end of the great chase scene for “The Blues Brothers.”

Sun-Times File

To pursue the Blues Brothers, filmmakers bought more than 60 old police cars at $400 apiece, according to news reports at the time, and also hired real police to participate in some chases. They reinforced them with steel cages and ran a 24-hour body shop on the Near West Side to fix them for later use. Most of those cars were destroyed by the end of filming.

Chicago and State Police shut down countless city and suburban streets — even the interstate and Lake Shore Drive — for filming. The only thing that slowed production? Pope John Paul II’s October visit — and the Chicago Bears. “They told us when the Bears lose and the fans are pissed off, even the Chicago Police can’t stop them,” Sosna said.

1980_1.jpg

A Sun-Times photo from 1979 shows the Bluesmobile as it jumped over a squad car at Wacker and Monroe.

Sun-Times files

Lower Wacker

Two hundred police and production assistants manned nearly every conceivable entrance to Lower Wacker for a famous chase in the bowels of the city.

At Monroe, the Bluesmobile races up an exit ramp and vaults a squad car in what Landis called his “favorite stunt.” Landis wanted the driver to take out the Mars lights on top of the police car, but the driver could only guarantee he could clear the cop car. But after Belushi and Aykroyd each offered him $1,000, his car ended up clipping the Mars lights.

BB_Cars_1.jpg

One of the pileups on Lake Street done for the movie.

Blues Brothers/Sun-Times files

Lake Street

Filmmakers actually got permission to drive down Lake — between trestles supporting the L, no less — at more than 100 mph. After Landis shot the sequence he realized it looked as if he simply speeded up the film. So he reshot it with stunt pedestrians on the sidewalks so viewers could tell the drivers were, indeed, going that fast.

At La Salle, near what is now the James R. Thompson Center, they staged a pile-up of grand proportions, with more than 10 cars careening into one another. They drilled holes in the street to install a pipe ramp, technology developed in Australia that had never been used in a major motion picture before, Landis said. The pipe flips a car if it’s struck correctly.

The crash is over the top: police cars enter the frame already upside down, turning sideways, you name it. “We were just seeing how wacky you can be,” Landis said.

The pileup so impressed Ebert that he wrote it “has to be seen to be believed. I’ve never seen stunt coordination like this before.”

Rand Road and Route 176

Another memorable pileup took place off the side of these roads in Wauconda. More than 50 police cars were involved in the chase. More than 10 cars go flying off the road and into a median. Filmmakers dug a ditch immediately off the side of the road so the cars would flip as they hit it, Sosna recalls.

For one shot, a squad car sails into a moving truck. To do that, a stunt driver drove the car off a 150-foot-long ramp that crossed the highway. The truck, driving at 15 mph, was equipped with special break-away sides.

Even with all the stunts, there were only a few minor injuries throughout filming. That “we got away that lightly, I would say is miraculous,” Aykroyd said. “God was on our side.”

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