The pitch was simple: “John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Blues Brothers, how about it?” But the film The Blues Brothers became a nightmare for Universal Pictures, wildly off schedule and over budget, its fate hanging on the amount of cocaine Belushi consumed. From the 1973 meeting of two young comic geniuses in a Toronto bar through the careening, madcap production of John Landis’s 1980 movie, Ned Zeman chronicles the triumph of an obsession.
That’s how Lew Wasserman sees it. And if Lew Wasserman sees it that way, that’s the way it is. This is what makes him Lew Wasserman, the feared and omnipotent head of Universal Pictures.
It is October 1979, and The Numbers are not to Wasserman’s satisfaction. The culprit is Universal’s big-ticket production The Blues Brothers, a movie that pretty much defies logic and description. Some call it a musical; others, a comedy; others, a buddy movie; others, a bloated vanity project.
One thing is clear. The movie is behind schedule and burning through its budget, which Wasserman considered too big to begin with. That Wasserman feels this way about every film’s budget is incidental.
“Goddammit!” Wasserman says to his second-in-command, Ned Tanen, the president of Universal. Tanen then finds the executive one rung lower. This is Sean Daniel, Universal’s vice president in charge of production. Tanen, shouting “I’m getting killed here!,” orders Daniel to do something, anything, to stanch the bleeding.
Daniel calls the movie’s director, John Landis. Landis then appeals to one of the film’s two stars, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. The latter is always easy to find and to deal with. He is also, by a mile, the best way to reach Belushi.
Everything revolves around Belushi, the most electric and popular comic actor of his time. It would be inaccurate to blame all the movie’s problems on Belushi. He isn’t responsible for the late-developing script or the unwieldy action sequences. It would be even more inaccurate to say Belushi isn’t responsible. He has become a blessed wreck, thanks mostly to his spiraling (and ultimately lethal) addiction to cocaine.
On days when coke gets the best of Belushi, production stalls. And when production stalls, money burns. And when money burns, Lew Wasserman burns.