Books

The Blues Brothers by Daniel de Visé review – behind the scenes of a musical comedy classic

Getting to the sincere heart of the absurdist comedy

The Blues Brothers by Daniel de Visé is out 28 March (Orion, £25)

The Blues Brothers were a deadly serious joke.  

Devised in the late ’70s by comedian Dan Aykroyd and his Saturday Night Live co-star/best friend John Belushi, the act was a sincere tribute to the black blues and soul music they loved.  

It was also veiled in deadpan irony – Aykroyd and Belushi were fully aware of the inherent absurdity of two white comedians, one Canadian the other Albanian American, presenting themselves as a funky Sam & Dave-styled antidote to the disco era. 

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They sent themselves up but played the music straight. That’s why it worked. That’s why the 1980 film The Blues Brothers is the greatest R&B musical comedy live-action cartoon car chase extravaganza ever made. 

In The Blues Brothers: An Epic Friendship, the Rise of Improv and the Making of an American Film Classic, an exhaustive, illuminating, funny, tragic and propulsive account of the Blues Brothers’ ascent into pop culture immortality, author Daniel de Visé sets the scene with impressively detailed chapters on the lives and careers of Aykroyd and Belushi before they met, a dual narrative which covers the emergence of those future star-studded countercultural American/Canadian improvised comedy troupes who eventually begat SNL

The chapters on SNL itself capture the essence of why the show and most of its first-wave cast members became such a phenomenon. Belushi emerges as a talented, sweet, difficult and insecure man with an eventually all-consuming self-destructive streak. The quietly subversive and hugely versatile Aykroyd, meanwhile, was blessed with a kind of wayward genius. No one has a bad word to say about him. 

His wild imagination and attention to detail resulted in a screenplay for The Blues Brothers nearly three times the length of a standard film script. It was whittled down with assistance from wunderkind director John Landis, whose avoidance of drugs is at odds with practically everyone else in this story. 

Cocaine was everywhere during the shoot. It’s a wonder Landis managed to capture any useable footage of Belushi at all. The sunglasses helped, you’d never know from watching the film that Joliet Jake is almost always hungover. 

De Vise covers every aspect of its often-chaotic production in tremendous, riveting detail. Imagine the making of Apocalypse Now, but on the streets of Chicago. 

Was the entire project a well-meaning yet problematic example of cultural appropriation? Yes and no. De Visé stresses the undeniable point that the waning careers of guest stars Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Ray Charles were revived by the film’s success.  

That was all Aykroyd and Belushi really wanted to do. Listen to the music. This epic tome honours their mission from God. 

Paul Whitelaw is a book, TV and music critic.

The Blues Brothers: An Epic Friendship, the Rise of Improv and the Making of an American Film Classic by Daniel de Visé is out on 28 March (White Rabbit, £23). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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