Forty years ago, former Saturday Night Live stars John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd brought one of their most popular SNL skits to the silver screen: The Blues Brothers. The duo already had a hit record, Briefcase Full of Blues, covering personal rhythm and blues favorites as alter-ego characters “Joliet” Jake and Elwood Blues.
The film has gone on to both popular and cult status — and still feels just as gritty and funny four decades later.
From the standpoint of a “car movie,” it’s more of a musical. From the standpoint of a “car-chase movie,” it’s pretty much on target.
The plot follows “Joliet” Jake Blues (Belushi), just paroled from prison, who has been told to seek redemption. Along with his brother, Elwood (Ackroyd), they gather up their old bandmates and try to raise $5,000 to save the Catholic orphanage where they grew up.
They go on a “Mission from God” and a musical journey that exposed a new generation to some of the greatest rhythm and blues musicians who ever lived: Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, John Lee Hooker, Chaka Kahn and Cab Callaway. Set in Chicago circa-1979, the film’s backdrop shows the “City of Big Shoulders” in its raw urban state.
The car stunts and epic final chase in the movie involved the crashing of more than 60 studio-prepared cars. Most of them were used up Chicago Police cruisers purchased for between $200 and $400 each. At the time, it was a motion-picture record for such destruction – only to be outdone by the sequel, Blues Brothers 2000, 20 years later.
Levy, The Last Open Road author and infamous “ride mooch,” was on the set for three days as a stunt driver.
“They didn’t want to pay union stunt money to all the people driving all those cars,” he said. “I actually heard about it from the guy that owned Loeber Motors in Chicago. He said, ‘I understand they’re looking for drivers. Can you recommend anybody?’
“I said, well, you know the Midwest Council, a local racing club and some SCCA instructors might be just what they are looking for. They put the word out.”
Levy, obviously never one to turn down an opportunity to drive, particularly in something as interesting as this, threw his hat in the ring. But there was still a test.
“I forget how I did the application, but they said, ‘yeah come on in’ and me and another guy drove there. A guy I met and became kind of friendly with was an ex-California motocross racer named J.N. Roberts.”
After winning numerous AMA desert races and championships in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Roberts was mentored by legendary stuntman and Stunts Unlimited founder Hal Needham and became a very in-demand stunt rider and driver. He was the head stunt man on the Blues Brothers.
“We get to Dixie Square Mall (the setting for the movie’s famous indoor car chase, abandoned for a number of years) and at that point they hadn’t dolled it up at all for the movie, so it was in terrible disrepair. They had a couple of these crappy old cop cars and you get in it with the stunt coordinator — and I happen to get J.N. Roberts. He just looked bored. He had a newspaper on his lap and a half a sandwich,” Levy remembers.
“(Roberts) said ‘OK I want you to do what I tell you to do when I tell you to do it. Don’t do anything until I tell you to do it. Head off full speed toward that way.”
“The pavement is all kind of cracked concrete with the grass growing up between the cracks. At 50-60 miles an hour I could feel the shake through the steering wheel and through the chassis.
“Now we are going about 90 and I’m looking at the tree line at the edge parking lot and it’s coming toward us. It’s not danger time yet, but then I start to wonder if he’s going to say something. If you wait for him to say ‘OK. Hit the brakes,’ you’re in. That was the test. I remember there were two guys from the MG Club, they both had “rubber bumper” cars and string back driving gloves. They didn’t make the cut.”
Levy just got his big break in show business!
“I went down to set up an appointment to go down to this building they bought. It was a rat-infested, vacant factory building on the Near West side. Then they fitted me for uniform and a cap and everything else and gave me a schedule.
“So (according to the schedule) I got to get down there at 5 in the morning get the outfit on and I have to cover the Mars lights with these little burlap sacks because you’re not allowed to drive through town with them on. Then we would caravan over to that big lot where the Eisenhower (expressway) dumps into downtown — a big grass lot — and you sit on your ass. And then you sit on your ass some more.
“Meanwhile, the director, John Landis, would always walk around looking dazed. He always wrapped one arm over the top of his head and scratched the opposite ear while he was thinking.
“We would wait for 2 to 3 hours and then they get a shot set up. Then they would send us off to Lower Wacker Drive in a long line. After a while they realized by that point that I was willing to slide the car around a little. So they put me, for two of the shots, second in line behind the actual stunt driver. They would lower the tire pressures on the back of his car so it would really slide a lot and then ahead of us would be the Bluesmobile. In the Bluesmobile there were two stunt guys dressed up to look like (Jake and Elwood).
“They also had this thing that was like a pickup truck with the Bluesmobile essentially where the bed would be, not even touching the ground, and that’s where they would do the shots through the windshield where you’d actually see Belushi and Aykroyd with all the cars chasing them. When they weren’t in an actual shot you never saw those guys. They’d go into their trailers and (makes a sniffing noise).”
In 1980, the film went $10 million over budget, costing Paramount $27.5 million (equivalent to approximately $85.5 million today). There were a myriad of reasons: the high-profile stars; the elaborate sets, including the defunct Dixie Square shopping mall on the South Side of Chicago that was outfitted then virtually destroyed from an indoor car chase (then deserted by producers); and over 500 extras for the climax at Daley Center. This included 200 National Guardsmen, 100 state and city police officers, with 15 horses, tanks, helicopters and fire engines; then there was the cast’s cocaine use, notwithstanding.
Levy recalls, “I think one of the coolest things were the lunches. They brought their own catering from California. Everybody breaks for lunch except whoever is setting up the next shot and there’s roast duck, prime rib, cold poached salmon — it was like a Highland Park Bar Mitzvah!
“The other cool thing was the camera car. It had actually been built for the movie Bullitt. They called it the ‘Bullitt car.’ It was built by Max Balchowsky, the guy that built the Old Yeller cars. He took care of a lot of cars and modified a lot of cars for Hollywood people.
“For the Bullitt car, he had taken a 427 Corvette chassis with the running gear and everything. As you can do with Corvettes, he unbolted the whole body and then he bolted a dune buggy body on it and then put camera mounts all over it in different places.
“I couldn’t believe the one camera mount; it was like a cow catcher on the front. I mean it was low on the front of the car and there was a little fiberglass seat like you would find in an elementary school room mounted on this tubular structure that they built with a stirrup.
“The cameraman sat with the mount right between his legs and the stunt driver drove through Lower Wacker at speed, missing the concrete stanchions there by inches. I actually went to him and I said, ‘how do you do it?’ He says, ‘Easy. I just never let my eye come up from the eyepieces. As long as I keep it in the eyepiece, I’m in a movie. I’m not in real danger.”
Levy had a lot of fun and was asked if he wanted to film some more in the movie. His friend through racing, Mike, decided to stay on and asked why Levy did not want to continue?
“I’ve got to get back to work,” he replied. “I can’t live on $38 a day.”