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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Aretha Franklin’s Most Pow­er­ful Ear­ly Per­for­mances: “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “Say a Lit­tle Prayer” & More

John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd Get Bri­an Wil­son Out of Bed and Force Him to Go Surf­ing, 1976

The Night John Belushi Cart­wheeled Onstage Dur­ing a Grate­ful Dead Show & Sang “U.S. Blues” with the Band (1980)

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

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