Aretha Franklin’s Pitch-Perfect Performance in The Blues Brothers, the Film That Reinvigorated Her Career (1980)

There are many films of the 70s and 80s that could never get made today. This is not your grumpy uncle’s rant about political correctness gone wild. In many cases, it’s very much for the best. (And did we ever need “movies” like Porky’s or Hardbodies in the first place? I’m going to say no.) Styles and social mores change. Actors and directors who alone could have pulled off what they did, when they did, pass away. And so too do musicians whose equal we will never see again. When these inimitable forces come together, it’s once-in-a-lifetime celluloid magic. Remakes and ill-advised sequels seem like sacrilege.

I am speaking on this occasion of The Blues Brothers, the 1980 musical comedy that brought together a pantheon of legends now mostly departed for that hall of fame in the sky. John Belushi, of course, but also John Candy and Carrie Fisher. James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker… and Aretha Franklin, whom the whole world now mourns. Charges of cultural appropriation might get lobbed at The Blues Brothers, but they would be misplaced. For all its absurdist slapstick, the film was nothing if not a celebration of black American music, a reverent, loving tribute to the blues, R&B, and classic soul that went directly to the source, and in so doing, reinvigorated Aretha’s flagging career.

The music scene of the late seventies had “turned away from soul and toward disco,” writes Laura Bradley at Vanity Fair. “Franklin was struggling to make the transition, especially after Atlantic allowed her contract to expire.” Her attempt to keep up in the 1979 disco album La Diva had flopped. She was the Queen of Soul, not sweaty dancefloors, and so she would remain, thanks in part to the antics of Jake and Elwood and writer/director John Landis, who cast her as Mrs. Murphy, a diner waitress who gets to call the brothers “two honkys dressed like Hasidic diamond merchants” who “look like they’re from the CIA.”

The story of her casting is bittersweet. “You have to remember that in 1979,” says Landis, “rhythm and blues was basically over, and the number one music in the world was Abba, the Bee Gees… when people ask, how did you get the likes of Aretha Franklin and James Brown, it was easy. We just called them and said, ‘Wanna job?’” Studio executives balked, wanting hipper acts like Rose Royce, who had sung the theme from Car Wash. It would have been a tragedy.

Thankfully, Landis persisted—he had written the part for her. “Everyone in the movie,” he says in a recent interview, “the parts were written specifically for them.” (Except James Brown, who took over as the preacher when Little Richard “found Jesus, again,” and went to back to his church in Tennessee.) Landis also insisted on Aretha singing “Think,” a song from her 1968 album Aretha Now, instead of her biggest hit. (“Really?” he recalls her saying, “Don’t you want me to sing ‘Respect’?”) The song came directly out of the dialogue between her and blues guitarist Matt Murphy, playing her husband.

Landis remembers Aretha’s re-recording of the extended film version of the song:

So, we laid down the tracks for “Think.” She came in, a couple days before she was to be shot. She listened to the track once and said, “OK, but I would like to replace the piano.” We said, great, what do you want to do? She said, “I’ll play.”

So we got a piano, she sat in a recording studio, and it was Universal Studios’ recording studios in Chicago, a very old, funky studio we were delighted to be in because it was where Chess Records did all their recordings. We had a piano for her. She sat with her back to us, at the keys, and the piano and her voice was mic’d. She did it once, listened to the playback. She said, “I’d like to do it again.” She played piano as she sang, and the second take is the one in the movie. She was just wonderful. She didn’t like doing so many takes and she had issues with lip-syncing.

Franklin also thought of the experience fondly, writing in her autobiography that it was “something I enjoyed making tremendously.” She did finally get the chance to sing “Respect” in a Blues Brothers film, almost twenty years later, when she reprised her role in Blues Brothers 2000. It’s arguable whether that movie ever should have been made. But there’s never any arguing with Aretha Franklin’s commanding voice. See her tell off Murphy and Elwood Blues, again, in a clip from the belated sequel below. Queen Aretha may have left us, but her legacy will live forever.

via Vanity Fair

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How David Lynch Got Creative Inspiration? By Drinking a Milkshake at Bob’s Big Boy, Every Single Day, for Seven Straight Years

"It is no secret that David Lynch, the writer-director-composer-painter, has an unusual relationship with Bob's Big Boy," begins a 1999 Los Angeles Times article on the auteur of films like Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. "For seven years in the 1980s he ate lunch there every day, ordering cup after cup of over-sweetened coffee and a single chocolate milkshake while scribbling notes on Bob's little square napkins." He took pains, notes reporter Amy Wallace, "to arrive at Bob's at precisely 2:30 p.m. each day. The reason: It increased the odds that he would encounter perfection."

"If you go earlier, at lunchtime, they're making a lot of chocolate milkshakes. The mixture has to cool in a machine, but if it doesn't sit in there long enough — when they're serving a lot of them — it's runny," Wallace quotes Lynch as saying. "At 2:30, the milkshake mixture hasn't been sitting there too long, but you've got a chance for it to be just great."

For his pains, he received "only three perfect milkshakes out of more than 2,500. But that wasn't the point. For Lynch, it was enough to know he had set the stage for excellence to occur," believing that "whether with milkshakes or movies," one "must make room for inspiration to strike — to lay the proper groundwork for greatness to take hold."

When the 1980s British television series The Incredibly Strange Film Show devoted an episode to Lynch, it naturally went to Los Angeles not just to interview him but to shoot some footage at Bob's, the sacred space itself. In the clip at the top of the post, you can see host Jonathan Ross, seated in one of the retro diner's booths and Lynchianly dressed in a white shirt buttoned all the way up, describe how, after an "all-American lunch," the director would embark on "marathon coffee-drinking sessions. Fueled by the caffeine and his excessive sugar intake, he'd then spend the afternoon writing down ideas for movies on the napkins helpfully provided by Bob."

In the interview that follows, Lynch himself confirms all this. "I was into Bob's halfway through Eraserhead," he says, establishing the chronology. "The end of Dune" — his traumatic, failed experience with big-budget studio production — "was pretty much the end of Bob's." Even Lynch's daughter Jennifer, for a time her father's Bob's-going companion, reminisces about "the drawing on napkins" and the "tons of coffee with lots of sugar." In this late-80s interview, Lynch describes himself as "heavily into sugar. I call it 'granulated happiness.' It's just a great help, a friend."

Lynch's reputation for drinking Bob's milkshakes long outlasted his actual habit. Charlie Rose makes a point of asking about it in the clip in the middle of the post, prompting Lynch to explain the reasoning behind his daily trips — both literally and metaphorically, since when Rose asks if all the sugar got him high, Lynch admits that "it is like a drug, I suppose, because it revs you up." Though by all accounts still a prodigious drinker of coffee and smoker of cigarettes, Lynch has grown more health-conscious in recent years, a shift that may well have begun when, for reasons of his own, he went behind his beloved Bob's and climbed into its dumpster. "I found one of these cartons that milkshakes came from," says Lynch in the more recent interview clip above. "Every ingredient ended in -zene or -ate. There was nothing natural anywhere near that carton."

Even though that discovery put an end to Lynch's 2:30 appearances, all his coffee-soaked, sugar-saturated afternoons spent at Bob's had already filled him with ideas. One day, for example, "I saw a man come in. He came to the counter, and that's all I remember of this man, but from seeing him came a feeling, and that's where Frank Booth came from." Blue Velvet's psychotic, gas-huffing, Dennis Hopper-portrayed villain aside, Lynch fans who make their own pilgrimage to Bob's Big Boy even today will understand how well its sensibility may have resonated with the filmmaker's obvious attraction to midcentury Americana. But as we've learned from his life as well as his work, it's best not to go around back.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How Jean-Luc Godard Liberated Cinema: A Video Essay on How the Greatest Rule-Breaker in Film Made His Name

Few can think of the very concept of the auteur without thinking of Jean-Luc Godard. That goes for those of us exhilarated by his movies, those of us amused by them, those of us frustrated by them, and those of us who experience any combination of those emotions and more. Godard's early audiences, at the dawn of the French New Wave in the late 1950s and the decade or so thereafter, reacted in all those ways, and somehow time hasn't drained his work in that period of its power.

"How Jean-Luc Godard Liberated Cinema," the video essay from The Discarded Image above, shows us how a young filmmaker in mid-century France, working under severely limited environments and in a whole new postwar reality — cultural as well as economic — imbued them with that power. Starting with a bang, his 1959 feature debut Breathless, Godard took cinema, says Discarded Image creator Julian Palmer, and "tore through its foundations, reinventing the form and reinventing himself, picture by picture." This entailed "a haphazard ethos toward editing" as well as oscillation between "genre and the everyday, actors and non-professionals, black and white and color."

Godard "found the modern world, engulfed with commercialism, both appealing in its pop-art aesthetic, but also repellent," and his early films vividly express both halves of that worldview. All the while he "toys with the conventions of cinema," for example by severing the "umbilical cord" of the musical score, "making you aware of how you're being manipulated by his medium," and littering the frame with text, "often with abstract phrases, possibly just to provoke a reaction" — or, as some Godard enthusiasts might put it, definitely just to provoke a reaction.

The Godard films on which this video essay focuses — the formidable stretch from Breathless to 1967's Week-end, with pictures like Vivre sa vieContempt, and Alphaville in-between —  also draw deeply from cinema itself. "Movies surround these characters' lives, providing a contrast to their existence," says Palmer. "This fantasy can allow them to momentarily escape their reality." But as the 1960s became the 1970s, "like a film coming off its projector, Godard himself was coming off track. He was increasingly disgusted by consumer culture, which was only becoming more dominant."

Thereafter, as some critics see it, the delicate balance between Godard's politics and his aesthetics was overturned by the former, but his initial "manic period of fertile creation is still unmatched to this day, and Godard's influence is immeasurable." We should not only be thankful that Godard still makes films (his latest, The Image Book, won the very first "Special Palme d'Or" at this year's Cannes Film Festival), but also hope that the next generation of filmmakers continues to look to his example. Godard may have liberated cinema, but it always and everywhere threatens to put itself back in chains.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking with His New Online Masterclass

FYI: If you sign up for a MasterClass course by clicking on the affiliate links in this post, Open Culture will receive a small fee that helps support our operation.

The historian Stephen Ambrose once said that “more Americans get their history from Ken Burns than from any other source.” That quote sounds plausible enough, and Burns' company Florentine Films certainly hasn't hesitated to put it to promotional use. For almost four decades now, Burns has indeed demonstrated not just his skill at crafting long-form documentaries about American history — most famously, 11 hours on the Civil War, 18 hours on baseball, and 19 hours on jazz — but his skill at placing his work, and that of his collaborators, centrally in the culture as well. What can we learn from his career in documentary filmmaking, with its seeming infinitude of both historical material and critical acclaim? Masterclass now offers one set of answers to that question with the online course "Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking."

Priced at $90, the course covers every step of the documentary-filmmaking process, from writing a script to finding source materials to interviewing subjects to designing sounds and recording voiceovers. Most of this has, in a technical sense, become vastly easier since Burns began his career in the late 1970s, and iMovie has made his signature pans across still photos effortlessly implementable with the "Ken Burns Effect" option. But it takes much more than pans across photographs to make the kind of impact Burns does with his documentaries, and the most valuable insight provided by a course like this one is the insight into how its teacher sees the world.

"People are realizing that there's as much drama in what is and what was as anything that the human imagination dreams of," says Burns in the course's trailer, "and you have the added advantage of it being true." But at the same time, Burns also believes that "there's no objective truth. This is human experience. We see things from different perspectives. And that's okay." This brings to mind a line from Burns' Jazz, originally spoken by Wynton Marsalis but quoted by Burns in a New Yorker profile last year: "Sometimes a thing and the opposite of a thing are true at the same time." A tolerance for contradiction, in Burns' book, makes you a better documentarian, but it may also make you a sharper observer of the world around you. Now, in what Burns calls "one of the most challenging moments in the history of the United States," the world needs the sharpest observers it can get.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

What Made Robin Williams a Uniquely Expressive Actor: A Video Essay Explores a Subtle Dimension of His Comic Genius

"He had admirers but no imitators," writes Dave Itzkoff in Robin, his new biography of Robin Williams. "No one combined the precise set of talents he had in the same alchemical proportions." Though Itzkoff's book has received a great deal of acclaim, many fans may still feel that important elements of Williams' particular genius remain less than fully understood. Scholars of comedy will surely continue to scrutinize the beloved comic's persona for decades to come, just as they have over the past four years since his death. The cinema-analyzing video essay series Every Frame a Painting produced one of the first such examinations of Williams' technique, "Robin Williams - In Motion," and its insight still holds up today.

"Few actors could express themselves as well through motion," narrator Tony Zhou says of Williams, "whether that motion was big or small. Even when he was doing the same movement in two different scenes, you could see the subtle variations he brought to the arc of the character." This goes for Williams' manic, impression laden performances as well as his low-key, slow-burning ones. "To watch his work," Zhou says over a montage of entertaining examples, "is to see the subtle thing that an actor can do with his hands, his mouth, his right leg, and his facepalm. Robin Williams' work is an encyclopedia of ways that an actor can express himself through movement, and he was fortunate to work with filmmakers who used his talents to their fullest."

Those filmmakers included Barry Levinson (Good Morning VietnamToysMan of the Year), Peter Weir (Dead Poets Society), Terry Gilliam (The Adventures of Baron MunchausenThe Fisher King), and Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting). Zhou credits them and others with letting Williams "play it straight through" rather than adhering to the more common stop-start shooting method that only permits a few seconds of acting at a time; they gave him "something physical to do," without which his skill with motion couldn't come through in the first place; they used "blocking," meaning the arrangement of the actors in the space of the scene, "to tell their story visually"; they "let him listen," a little-acknowledged but nonetheless important part of a performance, especially a Williams performance.

Finally, these directors "didn't let perfection get in the way of inspiration." While the quality of the individual works in Williams' impressively large filmography may vary, his performances in them are almost all unfailingly compelling. Even during his lifetime Williams was described as a comic genius, and he showed us that comic geniuses have to take risks. And even though every risk he took might not have paid off, his body of work, taken as a whole, teaches us a lesson: "Be open. This was a man who improvised many of his most iconic moments. Maybe he was on to something." Or as Williams himself put it on an Inside the Actors Studio interview, "When the stuff really hits you, it's usually something that happened, and it happened then. That's what film is about: capturing a moment."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Filmmaker Wim Wenders Explains How Mobile Phones Have Killed Photography

Smartphones have made us all photographers — or maybe they've made it so that none of us is a photographer. A century ago, merely possessing and knowing how to use a camera counted as a fairly notable accomplishment; today, nearly all of us carry one at all times whether we want to or not, and its operation demands no skill whatsoever. "I do believe that everybody's a photographer," says celebrated filmmaker Wim Wenders, director of movies like The American FriendParis, Texas and Wings of Desire, in the BBC clip above. "We're all taking billions of pictures, so photography is more alive than ever, and at the same time, it's more dead than ever."

Wenders made this claim at an exhibition of his Polaroid photographs, which we've previously featured here on Open Culture. In a sense, the Polaroid camera — easy to use, near-instant results, and highly portable by the standards of its era — was the smartphone camera of the 20th century, but Wenders doesn't draw the same kind of inspiration from phone shots as he did from Polaroids. "The trouble with iPhone pictures is that nobody sees them," he says, and one glance at the speed with which Instagram users scroll will confirm it. "Even the people who take them don't look at them anymore, and they certainly don't make prints."

Having worked in cinema for around half a century now (and for a time with the late cinematographer Robby Müller, one of the most respected and idiosyncratic in the industry), Wenders has seen firsthand how our relationship to the image has changed in that time. "I know from experience that the less you have, the more creative you have to become," he says, asked about the preponderance of photographic filters and apps. "Maybe it's not necessarily a sign of creativity that you can turn every picture into its opposite." Still, he has no objection to camera-phone culture itself, and even admits to taking selfies himself — with the caveat that "looking into the mirror is not an act of photography."

If selfie-taking and everything else we do with the cameras in our smartphones (to say nothing of the image manipulations we perform) isn't photography, what is it? "I'm in search of a new word for this new activity that looks so much like photography, but isn't photography anymore," Wenders says. "Please, let me know if you have a word for it." Some commenters have put forth "fauxtography," an amusing enough suggestion but not one likely to satisfy a creator like Wenders who, in work as in life, seldom makes the obvious choice.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Andrei Tarkovsky Reveals His Favorite Filmmakers: Bresson, Antonioni, Fellini, and Others

The films of Andrei Tarkovsky, even more so than those of most revered auteurs, create a reality of their own. Watching them, you might even believe that Tarkovsky himself lived in his own reality as well, one made only of the sublime and the transcendent, impossibly far from the mundanity of everyday life and commercial entertainment. Perhaps he did, to an extent, but the director of Andrei Rublev, Solaris, and Stalker certainly didn't become and exist as a filmmaker in isolation. He had predecessors in cinema who inspired him as well as colleagues he admired, and in the clip above from the 1983 documentary Voyage in Time, shot in Italy during pre-production of his film Nostalghia, he reveals who they are.

"If you had to talk to today's and yesterday's great directors," screenwriter Tonino Guerra asks Tarkovsky, "for what reasons would you thank each of them for what you feel they gave you?" Promising he won't take long to answer the question, Tarkovsky begins with Soviet montage pioneer Alexander Dovzhenko, singling out his 1930 film Earth. He then continues on to Robert Bresson, who "has always astonished and attracted me with his ascetics. It seems to me that he is the only director in the world that has achieved absolute simplicity in cinema. As it was achieved in music by Bach, art by Leonardo. Tolstoy achieved it as a writer." Simplicity, as it emerges over the course of the conversation, may well rank as Tarkovsky's most esteemed artistic virtue. If that sounds ironic, given how aesthetically complex Tarkovsky's own work can seem, he also praises Federico Fellini for the same quality.

"I like Fellini for his kindness, for his love of people," he says, "for his, let's say, simplicity and intimate intonation." He describes a Fellini picture he calls Pale Moon Tales (by which he may have meant La Dolce Vita) as "astounding in its simplicity, elegance, and wonderful nobleness of picture and acting." To Michelangelo Antonioni, another Italian but one possessed of a strikingly different sensibility, he credits his realization that "the meaning of action in cinema is rather conditional. There's practically no action going on in Antonioni films, and this is the meaning of 'action" in Antonioni films" — or at least in the "Antonioni films that I like the most." Tarkovsky doesn't neglect French cinema, naming Jean Vigo, whom he remembers "with tenderness and thankfulness" as "the father of modern French cinema," the filmmaker who "founded the French movie, and nobody has gone farther than him."

Finally, Tarkovsky ends his list as he began it, by paying tribute to one of his Soviet countrymen. Sergei Parajanov, he says, has not just a paradoxical and poetic way of thinking — words many a critic has surely applied to Tarkovsky himself — but an "ability of loving the beauty" and the "skill of being completely free inside his own creation." Parajanov, whom we recently featured here on Open Culture, had in the 1970s endured the persecution of the Soviet authorities. Nobody championed the cause of his liberation as strenuously as Tarkovsky, who wrote that, "artistically, there are few people in the entire world who could replace Parajanov." Now both of these irreplaceable auteurs are gone (as are all the others named here), but in their cinema will open the path of artistic liberation for generations of filmmakers to come.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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