The Blues Brothers Is a Wild Ride Through 1970s Chicago
The Blues Brothers is still a rollicking good time more than 40 years later, offering an exuberant look at 1970s Chicago in all its rough, working-class charm.
When I was young and looking for a chance to get away from the stultifying suburb where I grew up, there were a lot of places I considered moving. New York was in the mix, as was Los Angeles — all the usual suspects when you’re dreaming of making it in a big city. (Phoenix, where I was born, still wasn’t in that league back then, though economic and demographic shifts — not to mention spiraling rents spiraling elsewhere — have made it the fifth-largest city in the country, something that seemed unthinkable at the time.)
But the people I trusted most — my friends who had moved to Arizona from elsewhere, my acquaintances who had traveled more widely than I had, my teammates from high school baseball — all told me that Chicago was the place to be. Many of them were from the South Side, and all of them had stories about what an amazing place it was to live, to work, to enjoy life. One ex-bandmate, who grew up in the South Side neighborhood of Bridgeport, put it in a language that he correctly guessed I would understand: “Chicago is like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off if you’re rich,” he said, “and it’s like The Blues Brothers if you’re poor.”
I wasn’t rich when I bundled everything I owned into a rented car and drove the eighteen hundred miles from Glendale to Chicago, and I’m not rich now, thirty years later. And neither Ferris Bueller nor The Blues Brothers is as useful a shorthand for life in the Windy City as they used to be. But the latter, while rife with problems, holds up better five decades later. It provides viewers with some great laughs, some incredible location shots of a Chicago that no longer exists — and some fascinating insights into how we watch (and how we make) comedies today.
Behind the Blues
The Blues Brothers, filmed in a wide range of urban and suburban locations, had an unlikely origin story and an almost impossible process of creation. The late John Belushi (“Joliet” Jake Blues) was born in the Humboldt Park neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side to an Albanian family. He’d played drums and sung in high school bands and loved the blues music that traveled north with black musicians fleeing the Jim Crow South. Dan Aykroyd (Elwood, the second half of the eponymous brothers) was originally from Canada, but had gigged with the legendary Downchild Blues Band and seen several landmark Chicago blues performers, including Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Otis Spann.
This shared musical interest was the spark for the Blues Brothers, an idea the pair originated during their time on Saturday Night Live — and which caught fire both as a running gag on the show and as a phenomenon all its own. Showbiz connections brought Belushi and Aykroyd in contact with genuine musical superstars (including both their backing band and James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles, who all cameo in the film), and America made them superstars: the first Blues Brothers album, Briefcase Full of Blues, became a huge hit and remains one of the best-selling blues albums of all time.
Here, of course, it’s necessary to point out the problem with the whole concept of the Blues Brothers. Even though it delivered one of the biggest paychecks many of the major blues performers in the movie ever received (Cab Calloway, in particular, was practically destitute when the filmmakers approached him), it’s less than ideal that one of the most popular albums in an art form birthed by African Americans in the Jim Crow South is by two white comedians. As obvious and sincere as Belushi and Aykroyd’s love of the music is, maybe they’re not the best people to bring the message of the blues to the people.
But there’s a lot about The Blues Brothers that never should have happened, and almost all of them contribute to its shambolic charm. The movie seemed like a doomed project from the start: Aykroyd’s script (his first) was a total mess and had to be completely rewritten, the project had no set budget, and director John Landis (whose megalomaniacal demands would cost human lives by the time he directed a segment of 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie) kept escalating its shaggy dog story with bigger and more expensive set pieces. The filmmakers barely even secured permission to shoot in Chicago — Belushi famously promised then mayor Jane Byrne tens of thousands of dollars in community funding to sweeten the deal. In some industries this would be considered a bribe, but the quid pro quo paid off: the movie turned Chicago into a hot filming location for the next decade.
All of this came with a price — or several of them, each more than the last. The movie cost a fortune, but it also made a fortune; yet none of that money was passed on to the city of Chicago. The Byrne administration had already shelled out vast sums to ensure The Blues Brothers got made (smashing through a window at the downtown Daley Center alone cost $70,000 in 2023 dollars); closing the city center almost completely in the summer of 1979 bore a price tag that probably can’t be calculated.
Getting a special permit to drop a car from a helicopter, wrecking hundreds of police cruisers, demolishing an entire mall: each combustible exploit set the tone for the blockbuster era that would follow, where money was no object and movies commanded the budgets of entire municipal governments.
Was it worth it?
Despite innumerable sequels, rip-offs, cash-ins, and sellouts of the concept, which should have died when Belushi did in 1982, the fact that people still talk about The Blues Brothers today would suggest the answer is yes. What’s more, The Blues Brothers offers a rare glimpse at a city that exists in what seems like an alternate time line. The movie was made at the tail end of the 1970s, and Chicago, like most major urban centers, was in the throes of social and economic crisis. It was a dingy, broken-down city with rough working-class charm, and the movie largely sticks with its grungiest locales: run-down Catholic orphanages, seedy transient hotels, and hock shops. People who know the city and strangers to Chicago alike are still moved by the appearance of vanished locations such as the old Maxwell Street market, the Chez Paul restaurant, and the Triple Rock Church. The film spotlights the old Chicago of bricks, dust, and cheap beer.
It’s not just the city in a physical sense that we see on display in The Blues Brothers. Cultural markers of that old Chicago are everywhere. The movie’s main antagonists are a gang of neo-Nazis, a decision inspired by the then recent attempt by the National Socialist Party of America to hold a march in the heavily Jewish suburb of Skokie. The Chicago Police Department, far from their current position of eating up much of the municipal budget to brutalize people and then demanding respect for doing so, is portrayed as a joke at worst and a nuisance at best. There’s a scene where Jake, posing as a rep for the musician’s union, buys some time for his band to make a getaway, a nod to the power of organized labor that would soon come to an end under Ronald Reagan. Even the speech patterns are telling: the famous “Chicago accent,” a disappearing marker of specific ethnic white communities on the South Side, is everywhere, with Aykroyd’s ironically more accurate than native Chicagoan Belushi’s.
Of course, The Blues Brothers is also a musical. While the Blues Brothers of “reality” sold millions of records and played at big concert halls, the Blues Brothers of the silver screen play in working-class concert venues and count themselves lucky to make a few hundred dollars a gig, split ten ways. They all have straight jobs to keep their heads above water. And even the real-world stars deliver their powerhouse performances (in particular, Aretha Franklin laying down an all-time great rendition of “Think,” Ray Charles and John Lee Hooker tearing up Maxwell Street, and James Brown hamming it up — backed by a choir featuring Chaka Khan! — at the Triple Rock with a funked-up traditional gospel number) in the most modest of settings. It’s the complete opposite of the way stories about music stars would be told thereafter.
The Blues Brothers has a lot of false starts, jokes that don’t land, and moments that seem awfully awkward in retrospect. It cost way too much, it set the stage for a blockbuster era that’s been a mixed blessing at best, and its on-set cocaine budget is the stuff of legend. But it’s genuinely funny, its love of music is palpable, and most of all, it compellingly documents a Chicago that may still be physically intact, but whose places, spaces, and people are becoming harder and harder to find as gentrification, financialization, and monoculture sweep them all away.