Hollywood Flashback: 'The Blues Brothers' Rocked Theaters 40 Years Ago

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Aretha Franklin (center) belts it out in a scene from 'The Blues Brothers' with Dan Aykroyd (left) and John Belushi (second from left).

The movie still feels relevant, says star and co-writer Dan Aykroyd: "It's anti-Nazi. It's anti-racist. It venerates African American culture and recognizes African American performers and artists. And we were prescient about the militarization of police."

For a movie that came out four decades ago, a lot in The Blues Brothers still feels very relevant today.

"It's anti-Nazi. It's anti-racist," explains its star and co-screenwriter, Dan Aykroyd. "It venerates African American culture and recognizes African American performers and artists." While any cultural conversation today might cite the comedy as an example of appropriation and "white saviors" rescuing the blues, in 1973, the movie's origins seemed innocent enough.

When John Belushi, then 24, journeyed from Chicago to Toronto to scout Second City performers for The National Lampoon Radio Hour, "it was love at first sight," Aykroyd, 21 at the time, recalls of their first meeting. The two went to Aykroyd's 505 Club, where he introduced Belushi — a self-professed heavy metal lover — to the blues. Composer Howard Shore (the Lord of the Rings trilogy) suggested the two comedians start a band called The Blues Brothers. Three years later, Aykroyd and Belushi debuted the act on Saturday Night Live, performing vocals and harmonica and backed by Shore's SNL house band and other heavy hitters. (Among them were Stax Records legends Steve "The Colonel" Cropper on lead guitar and Donald "Duck" Dunn on bass.)

The Brothers' first LP, 1978's Briefcase Full of Blues, reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and went double platinum. The John Landis-directed movie, in which the boys blazed a path of destruction in search of $5,000 to save a Catholic orphanage, featured performances by James Brown, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. "She didn't like the idea of being in a waitress' uniform," recalls Aykroyd of Franklin's "Think" scene. "She was very shy by nature, if you can believe that."

In its review, THR raved that Brothers was "the funniest and most outrageous movie of the year." The $20 million film ($62 million today) earned $57 million domestically, or $177 million in 2020 dollars.

I understand that your love of the blues started in your hometown of Ottawa, Canada. 

Dan Aykroyd: Yeah, it started with the radio stations that I got on my shortwave in Detroit and Boston and New York. There was a club called Lucky Blue in Ottawa that was a night club right on Sussex Drive, right on the same street where the Prime Minister's house is. The promoter and his partner, they brought in all of the stars of the blues circuit.

Is it true the first draft of your screenplay was hundreds of pages long?

So I wrote 300 pages, with all the characters, all the possible locations, all the possible stunts. I remember somebody telling me that they were in the typing pool at Universal, and the women in there were typing up my Blues Brothers manuscript from my rough typing. And he said all of them were laughing at the same time. I thought, "Wow, we're in pretty good shape." Landis took that and wrestled it down into a shorter draft.

Tell me how Blues Brothers began.

The whole thing started the night that John Belushi came to Second City to recruit for National Lampoon Radio Hour in '73. He comes up to Canada to recruit for National Lampoon. He manages to poach Gilda [Radner] but I couldn't go. The first time we met he comes in the back door of Second City, it's a swirling February night of just snowflakes and blue light in the sky as his silhouette cut the doorway with a driving cap on and a white scarf. He was totally underdressed. White silk scarf, cable knit wool sweater, sneakers, pack of butts in his hand. He comes in the backdoor. It was almost like love at first sight when I saw him. He'd heard about me and I'd heard about him.

Then he came back to the 505 Club that I had. It was a little office front that I had on Queen's Street where all the people would go after hours in Toronto. Artists, streetcar drivers, dancers, cops — everybody coming off duty at one o'clock that couldn't get a drink would come to the 505 including our entire cast. And there was a record playing, it was called "Straight Up" by Downchild Blues Band, John was listening to it and he said, "Wow, that's cool music." "Well, John, you're from Chicago, you know it's blues music." He said, "Well, I'm into heavy metal, Grand Funk and, you know, Cream." And I said, "Well, you know it all comes from the blues." We got into a discussion and Howard Shore was there that night in Toronto and a couple of the other associates and he said, "Well, you guys should start a band and call it 'The Blues Brothers.'" So prior to SNL we had cooked this thing up.

Did John take vocal lessons?

John was just an instinctive, natural singer. He was a blaster. If you look at these great frontmen in these bands, Cab Calloway, Jimmie Lunceford, Johnny Otis, Kay Kyser — they were funny onstage. The frontmen were always funny. There was always a comic patter going on.

Do you have any memories of shooting Aretha Franklin's scene?

Oh, yeah, absolutely! First of all, she didn't like the idea of being in a waitresses uniform. She didn't think it would look flattering. But then Deborah Nadoolman, our costume designer, fitted the uniform so that she looked really cute in it. It accentuated her figure. And once she got the right shoes sorted out to dance in and the right moves from [choreographer] Carlton Johnson, she began to gain confidence. She was very shy by nature, Aretha, if you can believe that. She was a great vocalist and ebullient and effusive, but shy, basically, and wasn't sure she could pull it off.

But then she cut the song. We wanted "Think," so she cut the song and it was a great pop and crisp version of it with our band behind her. I had butterflies in my stomach when that music started and we were sitting on the bench. They started to cover her first and we were just sitting there watching. I went weak because it was just so powerful. It's just an electric, lovely, totally fluidic, rhythmic piece of music and film married together. I almost fell off the chair.

A version of this story first appeared in the June 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.