Forty years ago today – June 16, 1980 – The Blues Brothers made its film premiere.
It was the first R-rated film I ever saw. In an age just in line with the advent of home video recorders and the infiltration of cable TV, it just wasn’t as easy to see an “under 17 not admitted” film when you were only 11. But the hype surrounding the release of The Blues Brothers in Chicagoland convinced many parents to bring their kids along to see it. Frankly, the film shouldn’t have been given the restricted rating: at the time, one single utterance of the word “fuck” in a script was enough to earn the label. Think of the children! (The PG-13 rating, created especially for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, would have been more appropriate had it existed.) And, I do recall that the first time John Belushi uttered it in the film, in response to “You have to go and see the penguin,” a gasp went up through the theater. This wasn’t Saturday Night Live.
No, it was much better. The Blues Brothers is a damned fine musical. It’s also a tremendous time capsule of a lost Chicago. I’ve asked media students to look at this film and also Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and to note how different the city looks in both films. It’s a point of pride as an expatriate Chicagoan to be able to recognize the landmarks in the film, and you can always count on me to start an explanation that no one asked for when the film runs late at night on cable someplace.
That is, if those landmarks still exist. The Chez Paul is gone, and is now a bunch of offices. The Maxwell Street market was subsumed by the University of Illinois-Chicago and cleaned up (a euphemism for “the folks who sold there were run off and made to go anywhere else but here”). The off-ramp where Jake and Elwood evade the Nazis is actually in Milwaukee and that road is completed, so you can’t see that area. And those are just the first three that come to mind. For years you used to be able to hop off of the Stevenson Expressway at Damen Avenue and see the city auto pound under the off-ramp. Contained within were dozens of smashed Chicago police cars, demolished in the famous scene under the L tracks that remains one of the greatest film car crashes ever. (The cars were still there in the late 1980s when I used to hop off the expressway to get to White Sox games and avoid traffic on the Dan Ryan expressway. I am sure they’re gone now.) Or is it the second-best, with the chase through a repainted Dixie Square Mall the first? (“They broke my watch!”) Anyway – this site has a decent look at locations in the film, what’s left, and what’s not. You may be happy to know that the Jackson Park lagoon, where the Illinois Nazis took a forced swim, is still there in case they show up again.
What’s also so significant about The Blues Brothers, now that forty years are behind it, is the cultural preservation it offers. We get to see Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown perform. They’re all gone now. But the performances live on: while I will always prefer Aretha’s original release of “Think,” the role it plays in the film is important and offers a new feel for the record. Brown’s performance on “The Old Landmark” is the stuff of legend. And while the original soundtrack LP didn’t include John Lee Hooker, the film introduced an eleven-year-old suburban white kid to his music. I sure as hell wouldn’t have found it so quickly without something leading me to it.
That brings me to the soundtrack album. (This is a music blog, after all. Don’t get me wrong: I will do Blues Brothers trivia with you all day and quote the script as though I wrote it, but let’s not lose sight of why we’re here.) Shortly after seeing the film I ponied up the nine dollars or whatever and picked up a copy of the LP that still lingers in a crate in the basement. It’s a slickly-produced album with most of the same band as you see in the film. (Paul Shaffer does much of the keyboard work; Murphy Dunne, who plays the role in the film, not so much. But he did ask his uncle, Cook County Board President George W. Dunne, to let them use some county property for the film – and that’s how we get the SWAT team yelling “hut hut hut” going down the assessor’s office facade.)
I was fascinated by the music in the film. It served as my introduction to so many great songs that I had never heard before. It was around this time that I would spend Saturday nights listening to the “oldies program” on Chicago’s WCLR-FM with blank cassettes on pause waiting to pirate a whole record collection. I’m too young to have seen Peter Gunn on television, but I know the theme song from the show because of this movie. What I really wanted to hear on the soundtrack was “that song that plays while they’re trashing the mall,” which I now know as “I Can’t Turn You Loose.” It wasn’t there, so I had to go and find it. And that, right there, is why the film is important to me: it sent me looking for the REAL versions of songs I decided I loved. In much the same way that Shaun Cassidy’s versions of 50s and 60s hits led me to discover The Crystals, Bobby Vee, and the Lovin’ Spoonful, The Blues Brothers pointed me to the Spencer Davis Group and Sam and Dave and James and Bobby Purify. I’m not ignoring the fact that Belushi and Aykroyd sold records; let’s not forget that their version of “Soul Man” from 1978 made it to #14 and “Gimme Some Lovin'” from this film made it to #18. But as a young man fascinated with all things that came before him, born in the wrong era musically, this album started me on a lifetime of digging in crates at record shops to hear what I had been missing. And for that, I am grateful, if not a hell of a lot lighter in the wallet.
No Jake and Elwood on this one. You can hear Solomon Burke’s original version of “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” by clicking here.