No matter how far director John Landis travels, he cannot help but run into a couple of soul-singing, sunglass-wearing characters from his past — Jake and Elwood Blues.
“I’ve been in Kyoto and Munich and Tel Aviv and Buenos Aires, and you see people dressed as Jake and Elwood,” Landis told The Associated Press. “That’s amazing — they’re like Mickey Mouse. They’ve just become part of the culture.”
It’s been 25 years since the release of “The Blues Brothers,” a manic comedy crammed with music, dancing and action scenes, filmed largely in Chicago, directed by Landis and starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as music-loving brothers who find themselves “on a mission from God.”
As Jake and Elwood, the “Saturday Night Live” led police, Illinois Nazis and a furious country act on spectacular chases (“Our Lady of Blessed Acceleration, don’t fail us now”) and reunited their band to raise $5,000 to save their childhood home — the St. Helen of the Blessed Shroud orphanage.
Movie boosted music, ChicagoAnd while the cult classic appeared on screens in the summer of 1980, its influence is still felt — in the various musical ventures in which Aykroyd remains involved, its influential soundtrack, the countless times it airs on television each year, and the boost it gave to Chicago’s then-dormant film industry.
Plus, the movie highlighted musical legends such as John Lee Hooker, Cab Calloway, James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles.
“I think you can see in the movie how passionate, really passionate John and Danny were about the music,” Landis said. “It’s a unique situation where you have two guys who are exploiting their own celebrity of the moment to focus a spotlight on these great acts.”
The movie also serves as one of the best representations of Chicago captured on film. It featured “L” trains rumbling by the gritty flophouse room rented by Elwood, the vibrant Maxwell Street Market, and the Bluesmobile careening on a subterranean section of Wacker Drive before crashing through the windows of the Richard J. Daley Center — but avoiding the plaza’s famed Picasso sculpture.
“The city of Chicago was a character in the movie, as depicted by Landis and I think all of us, in the affection we had for it,” said Aykroyd in a telephone interview from Canada, where he lives. “It really is one of the characters of the movie. It really comes alive as a beautiful place.”
The movie has its roots in a concept developed by Aykroyd and Belushi in the early 1970s. The characters popped up as a warm-up act on “Saturday Night Live,” then appeared on the show before serving as an opening act for comedian Steve Martin — and proving popular enough to support a feature film.
To mark the film’s 25th anniversary, Universal Studios Home Entertainment on Tuesday is releasing a DVD, including an extended director’s cut and a documentary explaining how the band was assembled. On Monday night, the movie will be shown at more than 80 theaters across the country, with Landis and Aykroyd featured, via satellite, in a live question-and-answer session.
In Chicago, the movie is especially beloved for being one of the first major features shot here. “It’s often considered to be THE Chicago movie,” said Tim Samuelson, the city’s cultural historian.
During his 21 years in office, Mayor Richard J. Daley virtually banned moviemaking in his city. He died in 1976, and three years later the movie’s producers persuaded city officials to close major sections of downtown, usually on Saturday and Sunday mornings, for filming. (More than 600 major Hollywood features have been filmed in Chicago since “The Blues Brothers,” according to the city’s film office.)
Samuelson remembers seeing stunt men scaling the columns of the Cook County Building — part of the climatic scene in which Elwood and Jake race to pay the orphanage’s tax bill to a county employee played in a cameo by director Steven Spielberg.
He’s such a fan that he got inside the Loop’s Plymouth Hotel — which served as Elwood’s flophouse — before it was demolished. As a memento, he took the curtain that hung on the window. (“How often does the train go by?” Jake asks. “So often you won’t even notice it,” Elwood replies.)
Sometimes Samuelson takes out-of-town visitors to spots featured in the movie.
One spot that attracts “Blues Brothers” fans — even though it’s not in the movie — is Mario Novelli’s Barber Salon in suburban River Grove, where the owner has placed life-size statues of Elwood and Jake Blues outside.
Novelli, who offers sunglasses to tourists who want to take photos, estimates he’s seen the movie almost 100 times — including 20 times the year it was released.
Belushi died in 1982, but Aykroyd’s connections to the blues remains strong. He starred in a Landis-directed sequel, “Blues Brothers 2000,” is a founding director of the House of Blues chain, hosts a weekly syndicated blues radio show, and still occasionally plays live shows as Elwood Blues, partnered now with Jim Belushi, John’s younger brother.
Aykroyd said when he was 27 years old and struggling to turn a phone-book-sized tome into a workable script for “The Blues Brothers,” he never would have predicted the movie’s enduring popularity, or that it would lead him to various projects.
“It’s a merger of art and commerce like I never imagined,” he said. “I never thought it would be keeping me this busy.”