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.