DEADLINE: How did they respond when you showed them the first film?
LANDIS: She had never done a film. In fact, I’m not sure she was in any other film.
DEADLINE: Did the studio recognize the significance of that at the time?
Landis also recalled that Paul Shaffer was held back as well. Here is Aykroyd's note: UPDATE: The great Dan Aykroyd read Deadline's recent tribute to Aretha Franklin's performance in Blues Brothers, and had a different recollection of events surrounding him not starring in Animal House than did John Landis, who directed both films and recalled that Saturday Night Live's Lorne Michaels kept Aykroyd from joining his pal Belushi in the frat house classic because several cast members from the then white-hot show were peeling off to do films.
Everything changed, and it affected all the acts in the movie. LANDIS: Not shifting; by 1979, when we made that movie, the biggest acts in the world were ABBA and The Bee Gees. Except for Ray Charles, who then was singing Country & Western at that time, and having great success. But all of them, James Brown included, wrote in their autobiographies how the movie really helped to goose up their careers. Which was the intention. Disco was everything, and rhythm and blues, blues especially, and Motown…soul music at that time was Le Freak, and Donna Summer.
He said, he’s too old, and too black. We had Pinetop Perkins, all these legendary people, recording John’s song "Boom Boom." And when we ended up making a deal with Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun himself wouldn’t put John Lee Hooker on the album. And then, one of the great accomplishments of The Blues Brothers came when we recorded live John Lee Hooker on Maxwell Street, which is gone now. It was very gratifying when the album went platinum. LANDIS: They said, who’s going to buy this music?
LANDIS: You have to remember, it was only the second year of Saturday Night Live, and he was losing to the movies Chevy Chase, and John Belushi. He didn’t let Paul Shaffer be involved in the movie, either. So he wasn’t letting anyone else out.
DEADLINE: When you were figuring out which legends you wanted in a movie that was based on a popular Saturday Night Live skit…
DEADLINE: Same could be said for "Natural Woman," Carole King’s song.
DEADLINE: Amazing that Lorne Michaels wouldn’t let him out.
B.B. But the Blues Brothers 2000, it’s not only Aretha again, but Erykah Badu, and Johnny Lang, Eric Clapton, Charlie Musselwhite, Koko Taylor. LANDIS: I haven’t made a studio picture since, because it was such a horrible time with the new management of Universal coming in. We recorded most of it live. Don’t watch the movie, listen to the soundtrack. Danny would say, this is who’s in The Blues Brothers, Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker, Cab Calloway, the others, and this is who’s in Blues Brothers 2000…everyone else! King…I don’t know if you ever saw it.
LANDIS: Everyone in the movie, the parts were written specifically for them. We moved James Brown into that role, and we cut out the part we had written for James. We hoped he would be the preacher. He lost Jesus, several times, and found him again and again. At that moment in ’79 when we started shooting, Little Richard had found Jesus, again, and was back in Tennessee in his church. So Jesus took Little Richard. We did that before we actually had anyone and the only person that we didn’t get in the movie that we wanted, was Little Richard.
DEADLINE: What was the difference between the first version you played for her, and what she then added on the piano?
DEADLINE: That scene, where Aretha stands in a diner between Matt “Guitar” Murphy and his desire to rejoin the Blues Brothers. Was she your first choice?
DEADLINE: Would Dan Aykroyd have played the D Day character in Animal House?
She was just wonderful. 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. We had a piano for her. She didn’t like doing so many takes and she had issues with lip-syncing. 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. 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.
He is however the greatest impresario and promoter of comedians, actors and musicians in history and a true empire builder with the interests of talented people at heart. Great Landis reminiscence about Aretha. Also Shaffer voluntarily stayed with Gilda and her Broadway show because he had pre-committed to it. But he is flat wrong regarding Lorne not releasing me for ANIMAL HOUSE and John knows it. He is not. Just want to set the record straight and again a great piece. In fact Lorne put no pressure on me, said I was free to go but I decided not to leave him short-handed. He served Landis very well as a producer on one of John's really great films – THE THREE AMIGOS. John makes Lorne out to be some 'warden' of talent.
DEADLINE: It sounds like it wasn’t too tough a sell, to get them to put their faith in you…
LANDIS: They weren’t tepid. They didn’t want it.
What’s odd is that when some people die, they become mythological. In Aretha’s case, it is totally deserved.” /> John Belushi, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, I’ve worked with several people like that, who’ve passed and then become one of the gods. LANDIS: I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my career to work with some truly extraordinary artists.
LANDIS: More soulful piano playing.
Don’t you want me to sing 'Respect'?" And Steve Cropper, who was one of the members of the Blues Brothers band, is also one of the legendary Stax house guys. And Otis wrote "Respect." And recorded "Respect" and had a hit with it. LANDIS: At first, she said, "Really? Cropper wrote many, many of the classic soul songs and he was the backup for Otis Redding and all of his recordings. Both Steve and Duck Dunn who was also in the Blues Brothers band, were the MG's in Booker T. & the MG's. Then Aretha recorded it sometime later and Steve told us that when Otis heard Aretha’s recording, he said, "Well I guess it’s that girl’s song, now.”
DEADLINE: How did she take that?
DEADLINE: What was the thing you said that convinced her this would be a good move?
DEADLINE: Sounds like you benefited and had the support?
We started shooting in Chicago without a completed screenplay and so there was no budget process, really, because I was in production. It was insane and got very not nice reviews, but thank god, it was a big hit. That was very fortunate because I was allowed to finish the movie.
With thanks and respect,
And John was the star of the number one hit movie at that moment, Animal House. So they looked at each other and said, wait a minute, we own The Blues Brothers and we have a deal! John and Danny were the stars of the number one hit TV show in the country. We had this deal and suddenly Universal found themselves in this position where John and Danny had the number one album in the country.
She said, "You know I’m not an actress." I said, yes you are. John, Dan and I were completely thrilled that she and all those artists agreed to be in that film. You give a performance every time you sing a song. She thought about that and said, "Yes, that’s true." She wanted to be sure the proper amount of respect was there, and it sure was. We adored her. LANDIS: She was concerned.
LANDIS: I was called into Ned Tanen’s office and they all said to me, "Can you have The Blues Brothers in theaters by August?" That was less than 10 months away. And I said, "Of course!" And there was no screenplay.
DEADLINE: She’s the Queen of Soul, she has a lot to protect when asked to do a film…
EARLIER EXCLUSIVE, Aug 16, 3:50 PM: Her signature songs have been part of dozens of movies going back to Coming Home and More American Graffiti, and she hand-picked Jennifer Hudson to play her in an MGM film biopic earlier this year. But Aretha Franklin has only acted on screen twice, and John Landis directed her both times in short bursts, in The Blues Brothers and its 2000 sequel. On the day Franklin died of pancreatic cancer at age 76, Landis took the time to share with Deadline his cherished experience with the Queen of Soul and her unforgettable performance of "Think" in the original Blues Brothers film, and how grateful he is that he and cohorts Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi captured iconic soul singers performing on film at a moment when they were being inexplicably forgotten in the disco era.
Her passing is a tragedy, but she must be remembered. She is 100% what they call in England a national treasure. Her head should be on Mount Rushmore. LANDIS: I just want to say, to me Aretha Franklin is a true American icon.
LANDIS: That was written for Danny.
To give you an idea, MCA Records, Universal Records, refused the soundtrack album. LANDIS: What’s important to remember about that movie is, it was John and Danny’s intention to exploit their own celebrity of the moment, and focus a spotlight on these great American artists because rhythm and blues was in eclipse.
DEADLINE: Is there a lingering memory of Aretha in that movie, or her reaction to it?
DEADLINE: What do you mean?
We were a little concerned, uh oh, how’s she going to react to this costume. But attention must be paid. King’s funeral. And she totally was fine, she loved it. You know the backup singers, those women who get up from the counter? But she also had a firm place in American history. She sang at Dr. She sang at the inaugurations of Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama. Look, I don’t want to call her passing the end of an era, or make it sound gloomy. She is right up there with Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, these artists who put themselves on the line. Two of them are her sisters. I have nothing but praise for Aretha. She trusted me and was wonderful in the movie. As a civil rights figure. Aretha, she was the Queen of Soul and a great artist.
LANDIS: I’ve been in the situation twice and it’s fairly unique, once at Universal and another time at Paramount, where the property was attached to stars who were so hot that both times it helped. The three of us made this deal, and then Lorne Michaels wouldn’t let Danny out and it became just John doing Animal House with me. The reason Universal had a deal to develop The Blues Brothers as a motion picture, it was just added enticement to get Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi to agree to be in National Lampoon’s Animal House.
DEADLINE: Where was Aretha’s career at that point in 1979, when the musical world was shifting toward disco?
The props have to go to John and Danny, because that was their intention. We have to put these people on film. Landis." If she was frustrated or unhappy, she would let you know, but I don’t have enough good things about her. I would say, Aretha, please call me John. Mr. She would say, "OK, I will. LANDIS: She was lovely with me. Landis. The only thing that made me uncomfortable with Aretha was, for some mysterious reason – I think because I was the director — she insisted on calling me Mr.
If was funny, she really was taken aback that she had to do so many takes. LANDIS: She was happy. Like several artists I’ve worked with, she had trouble with lip sync, and that makes perfect sense when you realize she never sang a song the same way, twice.
DEADLINE: What a nice trip down memory lane this has been.
DEADLINE: Aretha waited until Blues Brothers 2000 to sing "Respect."
DEADLINE: It really is on the level of Frank Sinatra or Ray Charles.
DEADLINE: She sang like a diva but didn’t bring the baggage?
LANDIS: She thought she'd sing "Respect" in the first Blues Brothers. I mean proscenium performance, live performance, play back performance. I wanted her to sing "Think." I tried to do every kind of musical performance number in The Blues Brothers. This was a traditional musical comedy, where the actors’ dialogue leads into songs that further the plot. That’s what I wanted to do there, and "Think" was the song we chose when Danny and I wrote the script.
DEADLINE: What happened?
DEADLINE: You describe the studio as being tepid on the soundtrack…
LANDIS: And no one sings "Bridge Over Troubled Water" like Aretha. She said, "I’ll play." 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? Part of the sign of a great artist is, when they cover a tune, it becomes theirs, they make it their own. So, we laid down the tracks for "Think." She came in, a couple days before she was to be shot.
When Steve Martin said, 'will you open for me at the Amphitheater?' they said, 'shit, we’ve got to put together a real band.' We said, at the time, if we ever make the movie, we have to really step up. Plus, the bizarre and real fact that John and Danny and The Blues Brothers…it was a surprise to everybody but me, but when they opened for Steve Martin and recorded A Briefcase Full of Blues, that was the largest-selling rhythm and blues album of all time! The first people we went after were Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn, and when they agreed, it got us Matt “Guitar” Murphy, and we got the New York horns basically from Paul Shaffer and the Saturday Night Live band. Danny could really play the harp. And John was a great performer. LANDIS: I met with all of them and discussed it and they were all happy with the opportunity. They used to perform Jake and Elwood, with Willie Nelson’s band and Delbert McClinton’s band around New York. So it really was about Dan Aykroyd’s passion to recognize this great contribution of African American music, and he put together that genuinely legendary band. Extraordinary group of musicians. They understood the power of movies.
You look at some of the most important pictures of that time, you had Robert Altman, Paul Mazursky, Hal Ashby, Alan Pakula…the list goes on and on. As a director, I am very lucky, in hindsight, to see that the ‘70s and ‘80s – and it was all because of Easy Rider – but directors were given respect and they were allowed to make their movies. LANDIS: Well, on The Blues Brothers, it was a special time. Those guys wouldn’t be hired now, and they certainly wouldn’t be allowed to make those films.
What was interesting was, like most of my movies in the States, the movie got really terrible reviews. Which, by the way, was fine with me. LANDIS: Oh, we wrote it for her. It was our good fortune. Her review of The Blues Brothers is essentially a dismissal of the movie, and then five or six pages on the genius of Aretha Franklin. Except Pauline Kael, who routinely slammed all of my films. We were beyond excited she was in the movie. She was the Queen of Soul, a legendary performer.
DEADLINE: How did they respond when you showed them the first film?