Elwood: “There are 106 miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark out, and we’re wearing sunglasses.” Joliet Jake: “Hit it!”
And so John Belushi as Joliet Jake and Dan Aykroyd as Elwood, two brothers with the blues pumping through their veins, began their mission from God, meaning that one of the best car chase sequences in movie history, in which a total of 103 vehicles and one massive mall in Harvey, Illinois, were completely destroyed, was set in motion.
It’s been decades since these Saturday Night Live characters and director John Landis shook the world and brought to the big screen the funny and whimsical Mad Mad Mad World of The Blues Brothers and their incredible car-crashing musical adventure. Whenever the melody of “Sweet Home Chicago” comes on, two suited men with dark shades and hats are on everyone’s mind.
With names such as Cab Calloway, John Lee Hooker, James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Frank Oz, Carrie Fisher, and one special cameo from Stephen Spielberg himself, it grew to be one of the most memorable films of the SNL oeuvre, and the second-highest-grossing film based on one of the show’s sketches.
Today, after so many years, much of its 133 minutes are a joy to watch and sweet music to the ears, and for the cast and crew too, it was a unique and unforgettable experience, and with all that mayhem and carnage going on, it’s no surprise.
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In one crazy instance, as the crew was filming the opening scene in which Elwood goes to the joint to pick up his brother upon his release, the much-needed introduction to the iconic scene of the movie, the prison guards opened fire at the chopper that was shooting the overhead shot.
The guards feared it was a sinister attempt to spy on the Illinois State Penitentiary where the filming took place, and as they said later, they were not informed about a filming crew having a permit to film over the institution.
The scene they were shooting was when Jake enters in what is their new, bought-for-a-buck, 1974 Dodge Monaco “Bluesmobile” police car and delivers the line, “That’s just great Elwood, the day I get out of prison, my own brother picks me up in a police car.” Fortunately, no one was hurt and all ended well.
Yet, while Universal Pictures said they obtained every legal permit there was, it would seem that actually most of the city of Chicago was not informed of this filming. Whenever a car chase was going on, people ran for their lives at the sight of 30-plus police cars rushing through the streets and some even filed reports.
On another occasion, when the crew was filming one of the night scenes, Stephen Brown, who played a small part in the movie, reportedly borrowed the famous 1974 Dodge Monaco, only to be arrested later that night at a gas station after the police saw him pulling over. They ran the plates, which proved to be fake and the number nonexistent. Clearly, because the plate was just a prop.
Amongst all the chaos and car wrecking though, the atmosphere was enjoyable. What could be better than to have James, Ray, and Aretha around, refusing to lip sync and giving live stage performances for free.
What’s more, the charismatic presence of John, with his quirkiness, energy, and playfulness, made things much more interesting, such as when he hurled himself down the staircase on a kid’s skateboard right before they started shooting in the Penguin’s office.
Unfortunately for him, he hurt his back and had to be on painkillers for the rest of the movie. Drug use was, it can’t be denied, prevalent on the set. As Aykroyd told Vanity Fair, “We had a budget in the movie for cocaine for night shoots.”
Most famously, Belushi once disappeared from the set and was absent for hours, only to be discovered passed out in a stranger’s home nearby. That particular story says that during the filming of the scenes in the deserted Dixie Square Mall in Harvey, Illinois, Belushi just vanished and was nowhere to be found.
They had a limited time to shoot the scenes, so all crew began searching for him. Aykroyd, who was wandering cluelessly in the night, looking for his friend, followed an off-road path and came across a house with the lights still on, so he decided to try his luck and knocked on the door.
A man opened, and right when Aykroyd was about to introduce himself to the man, apologize for the disturbance, and explain, the man casually asked, “You’re here for John Belushi, aren’t you?” To which he added, “He came in here an hour ago and raided my fridge. He’s asleep on my couch.” Aykroyd would endlessly tease Belushi about this afterward, calling him “America’s Guest.”
Speaking of guests, one guest appearance in the movie gained a lot of attention. It was Carrie Fisher, who was at the time in a relationship with Dan Aykroyd. They first met a few years before, during the debut of the Blues Brothers characters on Saturday Night Live in 1975, and hit it off.
In between shots, while they were having a lunch break, Fisher, who plays the crazy-eyed girlfriend of Belushi in the movie, began choking on a Brussels sprout–Dan quickly came to her aid and performed the Heimlich maneuver.
After everything had settled down and she seemed to be OK, Dan knelt on the ground and proposed to her. Her first thoughts in that very moment after he saved her life, as she recalled, were, “Wow, what if that happens again? I should probably marry him.”
Unfortunately, the wedding between the two never happened, but Fisher and Aykroyd both had long and fruitful careers. However, very tragically, John Belushi died shortly after the premiere of the movie, now viewed as a classic, in 1982, found dead from a drug overdose in his hotel apartment. He was only 33 years old.
The other Blues Brother lived on and came to be famous as the head of the Conehead family, a member of the Ghostbusters, and a devoted Celtics fan. As for Carrie, the actress and writer, beloved Princess Leia to the world, passed away recently, causing tremendous grief in America. We can see her for the last time in December, when the newest release in the Star Wars franchise, The Last Jedi, will hit theaters around the globe.