The Blues Brothers: How Two White Comedians (Who Couldn’t Play Instruments) Saved a Black Music Industry |  Culture

The Blues Brothers: How Two White Comedians (Who Couldn’t Play Instruments) Saved a Black Music Industry | Culture

In 1979, Aretha Franklin released an album that remained at number 146 on the US charts. In the same year, Ray Charles had to perform in small places or in cafe-theaters. The industry wanted disco music and even The Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart were encouraged to dance to it.

But suddenly, two white comedians arrived on stage, dressed in black blazers and wearing sunglasses: John Belushi and fellow screenwriter Dan Aykroyd. Although they didn’t even know how to play soul music particularly well, in 1980 the duo was determined to restore the throne to African-American stars who deserved another dance. And they did it with one of the most unexpected comedies in cinema. In the process, he would save the blues. They portrayed the characters Jake and Elwood Blues, known as the “Blues Brothers”.

“There was Van Halen, Kiss, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin… there was no room for Aretha (Franklin) and James Brown to do big shows. But of course, let’s not forget that the movie was made by basically three white men, including director John Landis. They set out to save all these black legends. And the only reason they let them do that was because John Belushi was seen as a giant at the time,” explains American journalist and writer Daniel de Visé. He is the author of a recently published book on the subject, The Blues Brothers: An Epic Friendship, The Rise of Improvisation, and the Making of an American Film Classic. The 400-page tome chronicles the dizzying career and friendship of Belushi and Aykroyd, leading up to their film success. Shortly after this success, they would go their separate ways.

Aretha Franklin in The Blues Brothers (1980).Libros del Kultrum

“It was strange that two TV stars with no apparent musical ability reinvented themselves as singers in a rhythm and blues band, recorded an album that was among the best sellers, and even went on tour. There were no precedents. There were no better singers than me”, emphasizes the writer. He is also the author King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of BB King (2021), the biography that gave him the idea to write his last work.

“When I saw the Blues Brothers on TV for the first time in 1978, I didn’t know what was going on. They arrived in Europe as a film, but in the United States they were presented as a sort of five-minute sketch on Saturday Night Live (SNL). I didn’t know if they were singers or real characters, if it was humor or music,” recalls De Visé, in a video call with EL PAÍS. To delve into the history of this phenomenon – which was full of drugs, improv and rock and roll – the author conducted more than 100 hours of interviews, including Aykroyd and Landis.

It started almost as a joke. Belushi had become famous by impersonating Joe Cocker and practicing samurai moves in Studio 8H at Rockefeller Center, where SNL is still filmed today. But the two friends—experts in improv comedy and co-workers on a show that revolutionized television—had always dreamed of performing as a band in smoky clubs.

One day, their love for music—and for messing with it—took a step further. They decided to create the Blues Brothers, even though they didn’t expect to make it to the show. It was just improvisation: playing with the band, they wanted to encourage and warm up the audience of the TV program. They simply wanted the audience to cheer louder. Aykroyd picked up the harmonica and Belushi started spinning. “I didn’t know anything about harmonica tones. It was something totally incredible. Then I heard Belushi play … and he was also incredible,” the musicians who accompanied them recalled in the book.

From left, Chevy Chase, Lorne Michael, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi and President Gerald Ford in 1976.Ricardo Thomas

Despite their lack of musical ability, within weeks of their TV debut, the duo had even built a crazy story about the legend of the Blues Brothers: they were two orphans on a “mission from God” looking to form a band for increase. $5,000 to save an orphanage. This story ended up being a chaotic 324 page script. Eclectic, crazy and deranged, the script was a train wreck. It was done only because of success Animal House (1978), which was directed by Landis and starred Belushi.

However, the film quickly became a classic. The work might be just about right for today’s TikTok audience, as it’s split into self-contained chunks with musical performances from some of soul’s biggest artists. Moreover, even the Church considers it to be a Catholic classic. The film has been recommended numerous times in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.

John Belushi—unruly and troubled by drug use—died shortly after this smash hit in 1982 at the age of 33. The most uncontrollable actor of his generation (and that’s something), he had dedicated SNL crew members. making sure his difficult character didn’t slip out of NBC’s hands.

One of the most important figures was – and is – Lorne Michaels, the head of the legendary program since 1975. SNL turns 50 seasons on the air in 2024. A movie directed by Jason Reitman will recreate those early years.

Neither Lorne Michaels nor anyone else knew where Belushi’s excesses would lead him, whether to a stranger’s refrigerator or a tycoon’s party. “My whole life is directed. They set my schedule and I have to be where they tell me,” the comedian once complained. In his book, De Visé adds: “Cocaine gave him energy. The barbiturates helped him sleep. The doctor urged him to see a psychiatrist. John replied that he was too busy.”

John Belushi and Jane Curtin on Saturday Night Live.Libros del Kultrum

His anger was just as excessive. And he took out his anger in the studio, especially with the women on stage. “Women are not funny,” Belushi told his colleagues. He didn’t let women write his drafts: he refused to read them during rehearsals. And soon, his war against the female cast came to the fore. De Visé has a theory that he mistreated them because he was frustrated with his wife, Judy, who “wanted to have a career as an artist, (even though) he wanted her to fulfill the traditional role of woman (housewife)” . If anything, it would be decades before SNL experienced true equality, thanks to Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig. But respect for women was not Belushi’s business.

De Visé believes, however, that to truly understand Belushi, it’s best to turn to his two soulmates: Dan Aykroyd, his work partner (“his office husband”), and Judy Belushi, his great love yet from adolescence, who later wrote his biography. . “They were both tasked with taking care of him, keeping him safe,” he tells EL PAIS, describing a character who never grew up and had a self-destructive streak. He often skipped job interviews for parts he wanted to get.

“You have no idea how hard it is to be me. Everything will be so much better when I’m dead,” John once told Judy in an argument. Belushi, the boy who spent his teenage years as an athlete, abstaining from alcohol and drugs, became a superhero, a mythological presence who saved comedy and soul music… but not himself.

Dan Aykroyd at John Belushi’s grave.Courtesy of the Boston Herald/Libros del Kultrum

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