The Blues Brothers 

Detailed book traces the story of a film that was reviled by many critics but struck a note with the populus and grossed millions of dollars


“They’re not going to catch us,” Elwood Blues tells his brother Jake. “We’re on a mission from God.” So opens the musical action comedy, The Blues Brothers, which hit cinemas in June 1980. Their scripted mission was to save a local Chicago orphanage, but the greater mission was to pay tribute to the then-seemingly forgotten tradition of rhythm and blues.

Many British viewers probably regard The Blues Brothers as a good – possibly even a great movie. Yet they will also generally regard it as a one-off project and not the culmination of a journey which saw a seismic shift in American entertainment culture. They will almost certainly believe that the movie created a fictitious band and not that the band existed before the film.

In fact, The Blues Brothers band (headed up by comedians John Belushi on vocals and Dan Aykroyd on harmonica) had several album credits to its name, including the bestselling Briefcase Full Of Blues, as well opening for the Grateful Dead on the famous 1978 New Year’s Eve concert to mark the closing of Bill Graham’s legendary Winterland ballroom.

Thankfully, author, journalist, and Pulitzer Prize winner, Daniel De Visé has written the perfect book to set the record straight. The book is part dual biography and part work of social archaeology and traces the journey that Belushi and Aykroyd took via school, college, comedy circuit and television (principally Saturday Night Live) to culminate in the making of the movie. It also chronicles Belushi’s untimely death two years later.

The story behind this classic film is rich in detail, as De Visé’s thorough and painstaking research reveals. To say that Belushi and Akroyd had colourful childhoods would be an understatement, but it was their appearance on the American comedy scene at a time of great change that propelled them to eventual stardom in the anarchic and drug-fuelled early years of the groundbreaking Saturday Night Live. Belushi and Aykroyd were not alone on this journey and other comedians rose to fame during this period, including Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, John Candy, Bill Murray and many others.

It is mistakenly thought that Saturday Night Live created the band for one of its sketches, but the project was wholly conceived and owned by Belushi and Aykroyd, who insisted that they appeared on the show as The Blues Brothers when they performed and not in their own names. The band’s appearances on the show led to live performances elsewhere, to their first album and to a sell-out concert tour. The music critics were not always kind to Belushi and Aykroyd, but their average vocal and harmonica performances were ably bolstered by their oversized egos and a backing band that would be the envy of many famous musicians. 

The movie was the final piece of the jigsaw with director John Landis (famous for The Kentucky Fried Movie, National Lampoon’s Animal House, An American Werewolf In London, Trading Places etc) given the challenge of bringing Aykroyd’s voluminous and rambling script to fruition. The challenges were beyond enormous – ranging from location, budget, crew and last (but certainly not least) Belushi’s increasing drug use and erratic behaviour.

The film also included performances by Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, Cab Calloway and John Lee Hooker, each of whom saw a major revival in their careers as a direct consequence. The film came in massively over budget and was given largely negative reviews by the critics. Some called it racist at worst and patronising at best. “People who love soul music and blues may have a little trouble accepting Aykroyd and Belushi as great performers in a movie that consigns the authentic greats to back up roles” wrote David Denby in The New Yorker. Only the professional musicians escaped scorn. Yet audiences disagreed and the film earned $4.9 million dollars in its first week, more than $1million dollars a day, a pace second only to The Empire Strikes Back at that time. Current estimate is that the film grossed $115.2 million on an original eye-watering budget of $27.5 million.

Landis and Aykroyd went on to greater fame but the tragic death of Belushi, from a drug overdose in March 1982, leaves a long shadow over the success of the film. Obituary writers were cautious when describing the Belushi legacy. “He came and went like a comet,” Tom Shales wrote in The Washington Post. “He could not be casually encountered: he will not be casually forgotten.”

The film has clearly had more staying power than the critics gave it credit for. It has since been listed by the Writers Guild of America in its top 101 funniest screenplays and on the IMDb only Groundhog Day boasts a higher rating. In 2020, the Library of Congress inducted the film into its National Film Registry, flagging it as a work of historical, cultural or aesthetic significance, marked for preservation. In 2010, even the Catholic church declared the The Blues Brothers a “Catholic classic”, one of a dozen films recommended for viewing by the flock. High praise indeed!

De Visé was fortunate to have access to key figures when writing the book, including Landis, Aykroyd and John Belushi’s widow, Judy. The project had their support and there can be little doubt that the story told by De Visé is authentic as well as meticulously researched. It also an eminently readable story of how a paper-thin spin-off from a cult TV show has endured so long. Highly recommended.

The Blues Brothers, by Daniel De Visé. White Rabbit. 386pp, hb, £25. ISBN9781399621861. Published 28 March 2024.