When the Not Ready for Prime Time Players hit TV in 1975, few people expected that cast members from Saturday Night Live would soon break into movies. Chevy Chase did it with his 1978 hit Foul Play; that same year, John Belushi had his own hit with National Lampoon’s Animal House. Bill Murray scored the following year with Meatballs. But the first time that SNL characters jumped to movie theaters came in 1980, when Belushi and Dan Aykroyd hit the road as Joliet Jake and Elwood Blues, The Blues Brothers.
Aykroyd and Belushi brought their Blue Brothers characters to life for the first time on the April 22, 1978 show. The original concept was simple in that they were basically just playing the part of a classic rhythm and blues show band. Aykroyd had been a blues fan and got Belushi into it during the after-parties the SNL cast would have at the Holland Tunnel Blues Bar. The pair began to sit in with local bands, and SNL band leader Howard Shore jokingly dubbed the duo the “Blues Brothers.” From there, Aykroyd and Ron Gwynne conceived an elaborate backstory for Jake and Elwood that included being raised in a Catholic orphanage and learning about music from the caretaker, Curtis.
Before debuting the characters on the show, they collaborated with Paul Shaffer to assemble a legitimate band. “Blue” Lou Marini (sax) and Tom Malone (sax/trombone) had been in Blood, Sweat & Tears and were in the SNL house band. Steve Cropper (guitar) and Donald “Duck” Dunn (bass) were authoritative figures in music, having played on many Stax Records songs and been members of Booker T. & The M.G.’s. The group was rounded out by experienced players Matt “Guitar” Murphy (er, guitar) and Alan Rubin (trumpet). Willie “Too Big” Hall, who had played with Isaac Hayes on “The Theme from Shaft” and more, came in on drums. The band recorded the album Briefcase Full of Blues in 1978 while opening for Steve Martin on tour; positive reviews and their appearances on SNL drove the album to #1 on the charts. Their cover of the Sam & Dave classic “Soul Man,” which they performed on the show, went to #14.
Belushi’s star was going supernova that year. He was easily the most popular SNL player, Animal House was a huge hit, and he and Aykroyd had a #1 album. When the pair suggested that they could see the Blues Brothers on film, a studio bidding war ensued. Universal got the rights and Animal House director John Landis boarded the picture. Landis took Aykroyd’s massive story ideas (a document that took six months to create and was said to be nearly 400 pages) and turned it into a screenplay.
The story involves Elwood retrieving Jake after he gets out of prison. When the brothers discover their former orphanage may close, Jake gets a vision at a church service and decides that they need to go on “a mission from God” to reassemble the band to make enough money to save the home. Along the way, they incur the wrath of the police, a country band, Illinois Nazis, and a murderous mystery woman (Carrie Fisher). The film is filled with musical sequences featuring the likes of James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Cab Calloway. The production went over budget thanks to all the cameos, delays from Belushi’s legendary partying, and the record-breaking destruction of over 100 police cars. Though the studio was skeptical about the chances for success, it opened second at the box office in its first week (behind a little picture named The Empire Strikes Back) and went on to be the 10th largest hit of the entire year. The film soundtrack sold a million copies in America.
Over the years, the film has become a cult classic and a regular presence in midnight screenings. It did result in a sequel years later, Blue Brothers 2000, which was both a commercial and critical flop. However, the original film proved that SNL characters could make the leap to film. In the decades since, there have been 11 films featuring characters that began as SNL sketches. Aside from The Blues Brothers, the most successful were Wayne’s World, Wayne’s World 2, A Night at the Roxbury, and Superstar (featuring Molly Shannon’s Mary Katherine Gallagher). What Saturday Night Live has proven much more than the ability to launch a film is that it’s almost unequalled as an incubator for comedic talent, with dozens and dozens of successful writers and actors heading out to put out countless acclaimed films, TV shows, and books.
The Blues Brothers remains in popular consciousness for a few reasons. The film is funny, the music is great, and there’s a deceptively heartfelt message under the car crashes; Jake and Elwood know that the orphanage gave them a chance, and they know they need to save it to help other kids that need it, too. It remains a terrific showcase for the varied talents of Belushi, who passed too soon after the film in 1982. The Brothers may have been on a mission from God, but as entertainment, the movie is still divine.
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