Friday at the Movies: The Blues Brothers Car Chase

By: Bridget Clerkin March 2, 2018
DMV.ORG's Friday at the Movies is a semi-regular breakdown of our favorite movie car chases of all time. First up, The Blues Brothers.
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Welcome to the first edition of Friday at the Movies, where we here at DMV.ORG employ all of our automotive knowhow to get all judge-y on Hollywood and rate the most famous car chase scenes in film history, on a scale of 1-10.

First up in our series is a true car lover’s classic: The Blues Brothers.

The 1980 flick may masquerade as a movie about the power of music to redeem souls, save orphanages, and foil Nazi plots, but at its true heart is an even nobler lesson: the power of awesome high-speed car chases to redeem souls, save orphanages, and foil Nazi plots.

Jake and Elwood Blues were "on a mission from God," and the unholy path of automobile-based destruction they wrought on the city of Chicago was undoubtedly Old Testament-worthy.

But the full extent of what it took to pull off those vehicular stunts was something truly biblical.

Back before computer-generated images let moviemakers rest on their lazy laurels, car chases were filmed with real cars, in real life, with real stakes and really, really big clean-up crew bills. (The Blues Brothers was famously one of Hollywood’s most over-budget productions, with much of its $30 million cost going toward the armada of cars, army of stunt drivers, and backlog of mechanics needed to make its chase scenes run smoothly.)

Throughout filming, vehicles were sent plummeting from a height of more than 1,000 feet, while others raced at nearly 120 MPH through the actual streets of “Sweet Home Chicago, and one was put together just to fall apart.

And that was just the start of the on-set mayhem.

The Cars

Fugitives from everyone from law enforcement to a couple of Good Ole Boys, Jake and Elwood spend much of the movie fleeing various scenes in their Bluesmobile—often leaving abject annihilation in their wake.

But in the pre-CGI world of 1979, the only way to film such carnage was to create it, and that meant destroying an absurd number of cars.

All told, filmmakers purchased dozens of vehicles for the film, including 12 Bluesmobiles and more than 60 police cars—which ran the studio $400 apiece. The movie also called for the gleeful demolition of Nazi-owned Ford Pintos, and six were purchased in order to get the wreckage just right.

But in the pre-CGI world of 1979, the only way to film such carnage was to create it, and that meant destroying an absurd number of cars.

The preferred auto of the musical brothers was a 1974 Dodge Monaco, in the film portrayed as a Mount Prospect, Illinois police vehicle but in reality purchased from the California Highway Patrol. The cars came stock with the “cop tires, cop suspension, and cop motor—a 440-cubic-inch plant” referenced by Elwood in the film.

(In a strange twist of fate, the total jalopy would go for a mint now: Monaco models from 1974-77 have become collector’s items—thanks, in part, to their association with the film. The vehicles have become so rare that many Bluesmobile replicas rely on Plymouth Gran Furies or Chrysler Newports for the look instead, and even the replica found at Universal Studios is an imposter: a ’74 Dodge Coronet.)

Of the Bluesmobile fleet, five were reserved for actors Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi—portraying Elwood and Jake Blues, respectively—to drive around Chicago, while two were built for speed, and three rigged up to perform the impressive jumps needed in the various chase scenes. One was specially built by a mechanic just to fall apart at the end of the movie’s final car chase—a visual gag many months and many thousands of dollars in the making.

Incidentally, only one of the 12 original cars remains intact. It was given to Aykroyd’s brother-in-law.

The rest—along with the police cars, Pintos, and a few dozen others—were merrily destroyed in the name of filmmaking. Despite the best efforts of the 24-hour repair shop the studio employed to keep the cars running throughout the shoot, the Blues Brothers set the world record at the time for most vehicle wreckage in a movie, with a final auto-body count of 103.

The Drivers

And who was responsible for wrangling this herd of wild mechanical beasts?

Officially, Elwood Blues does most of the driving, with Chicago’s finest also doing their fair share of work. (Other pursuers include country band The Good Ole Boys and a couple of angry National Socialists.)

Behind the scenes, a cavalry of stuntmen were called in to take the collective wheels. Reportedly, more than 40 drivers were flown in every weekend to complete the high-octane shots, including the son of Hollywood’s ultimate macho hombre, John Wayne.

Producers also hired on a number of actual police officers to man some of the vehicles.

And despite the death-defying driving they did, the professionals tallied a remarkably low number of on-set injuries, none of which were serious.

Ironically, the worst case of bodily destruction on four wheels didn’t result from a car at all. Waiting between takes on the streets of Chicago, a notoriously mischievous Belushi reportedly flagged down a passing skateboarder and asked if he could go for a spin.

The inevitable wipe-out was bad enough to send the star to the hospital, where he was administered enough painkillers to get through filming the athletic finale of the film, which required him to perform a full dance number and a bunch of on-stage cartwheels.

The Scene

It’s a good thing the driving was left to the pros. The chase scenes are truly monumental, involving a veritable ballet of tricky spins, swoops, and flips—and gloriously resulting in the ultimate car mosh pit.

One-Stop Shop

The film’s first—and most prolific—pursuit takes place in a shopping mall, and just like the vehicles used in the movie, the locale was 100% real: Filming took place at the then-recently shuttered Dixie Square Mall in Harvey, Illinois.

The scene starts with Elwood and Jake, fresh from prison, pulling some serious moves to outmaneuver a pair of cops who pulled the duo over for failing to stop at a red light.

After leading the officers on a merry chase around the mall parking area, Elwood takes his brother’s suggestion of getting out of the lot seriously—by busting into a Toys ‘R Us anchor store, narrowly avoiding a customer who just wants to buy a Miss Piggy doll.

With two police cars hot on their tail, the deadpan duo take the time to marvel at the mall’s spacious interior and amusingly named shops like Disco Pants and Haircuts—as well as a hilariously dated-looking Pier 1 Imports—before driving straight through all of it, swerving along the way for some bonus gratuitous carnage.

After busting through a bakery, a flower stand, a music store, and an Oldsmobile dealer (“New Oldsmobiles are in early this year,” Elwood quips as he backs out of the shattered storefront window), the brothers escape when their pursuers’ vehicle trips up on some of the wreckage now covering the floor and flips upside down, leaving the officers unharmed but sadly claiming the life of one of their watches.

A Three-Minute Tour

The brothers make their escape, but the cops swear revenge—and they eventually get their shot at it, testing the Bluesmobile’s acrobatics once again on a chase through downtown Chicago, including stints along the city’s Lower Wacker Drive, along Lake Street under an El structure, and straight through the Richard J. Daley Plaza.

After slaloming through a series of support structures in the underground Lower Wacker, it looks like the duo is cooked, as a cop car slides across the screen, blocking the only exit ramp. But one mere police vehicle is no match for the Bluesmobile, which emerges triumphant after vaulting itself over the squad car—and taking out its Mars lights for good measure.

Adding insult to injury, the crippled car is run over—several times—by the cavalry of police vehicles now in pursuit, many of which fall victim to a sharp turn on the edge of a construction zone. Those who make it out follow the fugitive Bluesmobile under the El. And when the camera flashes onto the speedometer reading 118 MPH, it wasn’t movie magic: The production got permission to drive at reckless speeds through the city, and director John Landis actually filmed this portion of the chase scene twice, adding extras in the second time in order to offer context of how fast the vehicles were actually going. (The take without the actors made it look like a simple trick of film speed was responsible for the cars’ pace.)

Cut off by yet another too-clever-for-their-own-good police car, the brothers are able to narrowly avoid a crash and turn out of the way, unlike the massive group of cars behind them, all of which slam into the car, and eventually each other, in a seemingly never-ending pile-up of truly biblical proportions.

Auf Wiedersehen, Illinois Nazis

But the Blues Brothers had a final foe to outrun: two carloads of indignant Illinois Nazis seeking revenge for Jake and Elwood’s previous driving rampage through their public protest.

Gloriously set to Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries," the scene kicks off with the swastika-emblazoned Pintos chasing the Bluesmobile through an alley and back onto a main street, where one National Socialist fires a pistol at the car, damaging the motor and spilling hot oil onto the windshield.

Billowing steam and leaking oil, it looks like the car—and the brothers—are done for, but Jake and Elwood hit on one more bit of luck when the construction signs they blithely truck through lead to an unfinished on-ramp suspended several stories up in the sky. Elwood is quick enough on the brakes to avoid catastrophe, but the same can’t be said for their neo-Nazi pursuers.

While the Bluesmobile literally backflips to safety—towering over the heads of the trailing Nazis—the red Pinto zooms straight off the edge of the unfinished road, leading to one of the film’s most breathtaking shots: an actual Ford Pinto dropped from 1,400 feet.

In order to film the scene, the crew had to get the car an “air un-worthiness certificate” from the Federal Aviation Administration, and the production team was required to test drop two cars from the astronomical height before they were allowed to do so with cameras rolling.

The end result was worth all the fuss: with Chicago’s monumental Sears (now Willis) Tower in the background for context, the car can be seen plummeting down the city skyline, where it eventually collides with the earth, creating an enormous hole in the road—one more obstacle Jake and Elwood need to leap over before the chase scene is through.

Our Rating

This being our inaugural analysis, we don’t want to seem soft, but there’s no denying the absolute epic-ness that are these car chase scenes.

Classics are classics for a reason, and this movie has plenty of them: cathartic cop car pile-ups; high-octane speeds; truly mind-boggling stunts; and the thorough destruction of Nazi property being just a few. (For the record, there’s some pretty good music in this flick, too.)

For that, we award the brothers on a mission from God a perfect 10 rating, with a bonus Pope Francis award for making the Lord’s work look cooler than ever.

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