Chicago’s City Limits: Defined by Film

How can film evoke an authentic experience of a city? In movies, so many locations are defined for the viewers through architectural reminders. A sweeping shot of the Empire State Building indicates a story about New York City.  A dark descent onto sprawling shimmering city lights may introduce a Hollywood noir.  Chicago has its own landmarks; the Willis Tower, Wrigley Field, and the river wrapping through Michigan Avenue are familiar reminders of Chicago’s grandeur.  But what about the moments defined by the spirit of the people who live here? These experiences are essential to the city as a contribution to it’s fundamentally active and ever-changing influence; a lively street, a quiet discussion in a church, an indie rock show.  The following movies recall moments that define Chicago, both for those who love the movies and for the citizens who have embraced these films as part of their city’s identity.


Blues Brothers

Blues Brothers is always the first name that comes to mind when linking the city of Chicago to its film history. One of my favorite scenes in Blues Brothers is when Jake and Elwood meander down to Maxwell Street to enjoy some of the local blues and eat at Soul Food Cafe.  In fact, the woman and girl hanging in the window above the Soul Food Cafe were the family of Nate who owned the real Nate’s Deli, a Maxwell Street establishment. Today no original buildings shot in this sequence exist as they appear in the film – for more on Maxwell street check out Blues Brother Central and Maxwell Street.


The Untouchables

It’s no secret that Chicago has a notorious gangster past. But out of all this mythology surrounding the city’s seedy elements, The Untouchables always reigns as the best movie about this history. Many moments were filmed in historic buildings around the city, such as the Chicago Theatre and Union Station. One of the most remarkable uses of location in the film is at Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica, when Sean Connery’s character utters the famous lines, “He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way.”


High Fidelity

This is authentic Chicago indie at its finest. Rob Gordon (John Cusack) is the aged-out owner of a failing record store who wanders around the city dripping with hopeless romantic heartbreak.

His apartment is a quintessentially Chicago. Gordon wears a t-shirt from the indie label Wax Trax! and he attends a film at the art-house Music Box Theatre. Throughout the film, there are posters for local bands like Urge Overkill and US Maple. In addition to all of the real venues used in the film, the movie captures the spirit of the Wicker Park neighborhood in the late 90’s.