Despite the frenetic energy of the 1980s film The Blues Brothers, the true story behind the camera revealed a far more sombre affair. Starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi as Elwood and ‘Joliet’ Jake Blues, the film was an expansion upon two characters created by the actors on Saturday Night Live (SNL), donning black Ray-Bans, a fedora, and a smart blazered suit. Growing up in an orphanage, the film followed the two brothers putting together their old band in order to save their childhood residence.
During the time of the film’s production, lead actor John Belushi had become a household name due to the popularity of both National Lampoon’s Animal House and SNL, making the announcement of The Blues Brothers film an intense bidding war. Eventually secured by Universal who appointed John Landis at the helm, Belushi and Aykroyd left SNL to pursue the spin-off film.
Though John Belushi was a troubled man, suffering greatly from a cocaine addiction that frequently harmed his comedy career, one that resulted in him being chucked off the set of SNL on multiple occasions. This addiction had a knock-on effect on the production of The Blues Brothers, frequently delayed due to Belushi’s consistent partying, an issue heightened by his own fame, with “every blue-collar Joe wanting his John Belushi story” according to Smokey Wendell who was employed to keep the drug away from Belushi.
Often missing unit calls and sleeping through production, it was difficult for Belushi to avoid the drug due to its prevalence on set, used by co-star Aykroyd, as well as Carrie Fisher and much of the crew. This was so much so that Aykroyd actually claimed a section of the budget was set aside for purchases of cocaine during the night shoots. There was even a private bar on set named ‘The Blues Club’ in which the cast, crew and friends could acquire any drug they desired from the bar staff.
The efforts of Landis and Wendell were ultimately fruitless, with the director once finding Belushi amongst a “mountain of cocaine” in his trailer, to which Belushi tearfully admitted his addiction. The late actor would of course, unfortunately, pass away just two years after the release of The Blues Brothers due to this relentless addiction.
With such strict regulations and standards on contemporary film sets, it’s quite shocking to conceive of a film industry that so willfully accepted the existence of drugs on set. The blind approval of the drug in popular culture, tied together with the whirlwind of Belushi’s popularity is likely what led to his untimely death.