$400 Blues and Bit of Chicago

It’s been nearly 40 years since their debut on Saturday Night Live, but Jake and Elwood Blues are famous for their launch onto the big screen in 1980. The Blues Brothers as a film was a foot-tapping, money-making, car-smashing love letter to both Chicago and rhythm and blues. It grossed over $115-million in theaters worldwide, even though director John Landis and its crew couldn’t identify whether the movie was a comedy, a musical, a classic, or an expensive disaster. Let’s take a look back at some fascinating facts about the cars and stunts that made this film such a motorhead classic.

Anyone who’s seen the film is well aware of the seeming physics-defying stunts. The police cruiser jumping, bullet dodging, duping a group of country musicians and explosion surviving, all wound seamlessly together with a killer rhythm and blues soundtrack featuring famous blues stars like John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Cab Calloway, and James Brown. It’s interesting to note it started out as a 342-page novella written by John Belushi who had no idea how to write a movie script. He gave it to Dan and John Landis and in three days, they had a script.

The movie is one of my all-time favorites and falls into the instant classic category. If you haven’t seen it please do and come back to reading this. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Those of you who want to know what I’m talking about but don’t want to see the film, here’s a short summary, but I suggest you see it. Here goes.

The writers of the film are also the main actors playing two brothers, Jake and Elwood Blues. Jake is just released from prison and they’re heading home to a Catholic orphanage in Chicago where the brothers were raised by a nun. They discover the orphanage is closing unless $5,000 can be raised and brought to the county tax assessor’s office soon. The brothers go to a local church at the behest of their mentor and are inspired by a “mission from God” to get their band together and raise the money for the orphanage. During this time they end up being chased by everyone under the sun including highway patrolmen, police squad cars, honky-tonk musicians, psychotic ex-girlfriends and the second largest car pileup using real cars in a movie (the second Blues Brother film used a single additional car).

As an unspoken partner in crime, the “Bluesmobile” is a 1974 Dodge Monaco sedan. In describing the car to his brother Jake, Elwood says, “It’s got a cop motor, a 440-cubic-inch plant. It’s got cop tires, cop suspension, cop shocks. It’s a model made before catalytic converters so it’ll run well on regular gas.”

One of my favorite scenes is in the opening just after Jake has been released from Joliet prison and is mad that his brother traded the Cadillac for a microphone and then picked him up in a police car. Elwood proves the worthiness of the new Bluesmobile by jumping it over Chicago’s 95th St. bridge.

They went through 13 vehicles to do all the stunts. Some were retrofitted with tiny one-gallon gas tanks for jumping, others modified for speed, and one that took a mechanic several months to rig it just so it would fall to pieces in the final scene. All these cars were former police vehicles purchased from the California Highway Patrol for about $400 each and mocked up to look like former Mount Prospect, Illinois patrol car. The film’s production team also bought 60 police cruisers to repeatedly destroy and kept a 24-hr body shop to repair them. While this might not seem so impressive in our age of rampant CGI, all the stunts in the movie were real.

The Blues Brothers use the Bluesmobile to evade pursuers in a number of high-speed chases throughout the film, culminating in a police pursuit/race to Chicago after the band’s performance north of the city. Even though the car throws a rod during the chase, they’re still able to outrun both the police and a group of Neo-Nazis driving a pair of Ford station wagons. After they crash through the Richard J. Daley Center and arrive at the Cook County Building to pay the property taxes on the orphanage, the car falls to pieces on the sidewalk.

Director John Landis has claimed that the portion of the final chase sequence beneath the elevated train tracks, which briefly showed a reading of 118 miles per hour on the car’s speedometer, was actually filmed at that speed, a testament to the Monaco’s police car heritage. He also claims re-shot some of the scenes with pedestrians on the sidewalks so viewers could see that the film had not been sped up to create the effect of speed.

I’m surprised the movie isn’t as well known or popular as it deserves to be. Like many great car films, the best stunts are left to the end, and this film does not disappoint.

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