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. Landis also recalled that Paul Shaffer was held back as well. Here is Aykroyd’s note:
Great Landis reminiscence about Aretha. But he is flat wrong regarding Lorne not releasing me for ANIMAL HOUSE and John knows it. In fact Lorne put no pressure on me, said I was free to go but I decided not to leave him short-handed. Also Shaffer voluntarily stayed with Gilda and her Broadway show because he had pre-committed to it. John makes Lorne out to be some ‘warden’ of talent. He is not. 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. He served Landis very well as a producer on one of John’s really great films – THE THREE AMIGOS. Just want to set the record straight and again a great piece.
With thanks and respect,
PREVIOUS EXCLUSIVE, August 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.
DEADLINE: Aretha waited until Blues Brothers 2000 to sing “Respect.”
LANDIS: She thought she’d sing “Respect” in the first Blues Brothers. I wanted her to sing “Think.” I tried to do every kind of musical performance number in The Blues Brothers. I mean proscenium performance, live performance, play back performance. 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: How did she take that?
LANDIS: At first, she said, “Really? 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. Both Steve and Duck Dunn who was also in the Blues Brothers band, were the MG’s in Booker T. & the MG’s. Cropper wrote many, many of the classic soul songs and he was the backup for Otis Redding and all of his recordings. And Otis wrote “Respect.” And recorded “Respect” and had a hit with it. 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: Same could be said for “Natural Woman,” Carole King’s song.
LANDIS: And no one sings “Bridge Over Troubled Water” like Aretha. 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. 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.
DEADLINE: What was the difference between the first version you played for her, and what she then added on the piano?
LANDIS: More soulful piano playing.
DEADLINE: When you were figuring out which legends you wanted in a movie that was based on a popular Saturday Night Live skit…
LANDIS: Everyone in the movie, the parts were written specifically for them. 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. We hoped he would be the preacher. At that moment in ’79 when we started shooting, Little Richard had found Jesus, again, and was back in Tennessee in his church. He lost Jesus, several times, and found him again and again. So Jesus took Little Richard. We moved James Brown into that role, and we cut out the part we had written for James.
DEADLINE: Where was Aretha’s career at that point in 1979, when the musical world was shifting toward disco?
LANDIS: Not shifting; by 1979, when we made that movie, the biggest acts in the world were ABBA and The Bee Gees. Disco was everything, and rhythm and blues, blues especially, and Motown…soul music at that time was Le Freak, and Donna Summer. Everything changed, and it affected all the acts in the movie. 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.
DEADLINE: What do you mean?
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. To give you an idea, MCA Records, Universal Records, refused the soundtrack album.
LANDIS: They said, who’s going to buy this music? 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. 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. He said, he’s too old, and too black. It was very gratifying when the album went platinum.
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?
LANDIS: Oh, we wrote it for her. She was the Queen of Soul, a legendary performer. We were beyond excited she was in the movie. It was our good fortune. What was interesting was, like most of my movies in the States, the movie got really terrible reviews. Except Pauline Kael, who routinely slammed all of my films. 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. Which, by the way, was fine with me.
DEADLINE: She’s the Queen of Soul, she has a lot to protect when asked to do a film…
LANDIS: She had never done a film. In fact, I’m not sure she was in any other film.
DEADLINE: What was the thing you said that convinced her this would be a good move?
LANDIS: She was concerned. She said, “You know I’m not an actress.” I said, yes you are. 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. John, Dan and I were completely thrilled that she and all those artists agreed to be in that film.
DEADLINE: It sounds like it wasn’t too tough a sell, to get them to put their faith in you…
LANDIS: I met with all of them and discussed it and they were all happy with the opportunity. They understood the power of movies. 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! 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. Danny could really play the harp. And John was a great performer. They used to perform Jake and Elwood, with Willie Nelson’s band and Delbert McClinton’s band around New York. 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. 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. Extraordinary group of musicians.
DEADLINE: Is there a lingering memory of Aretha in that movie, or her reaction to it?
LANDIS: She was happy. If was funny, she really was taken aback that she had to do so many takes. 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.
Look, I don’t want to call her passing the end of an era, or make it sound gloomy. But attention must be paid. Aretha, she was the Queen of Soul and a great artist. But she also had a firm place in American history. As a civil rights figure. She sang at Dr. King’s funeral. She sang at the inaugurations of Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama. She is right up there with Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, these artists who put themselves on the line. I have nothing but praise for Aretha. She trusted me and was wonderful in the movie. We were a little concerned, uh oh, how’s she going to react to this costume. And she totally was fine, she loved it. You know the backup singers, those women who get up from the counter? Two of them are her sisters.
DEADLINE: She sang like a diva but didn’t bring the baggage?
LANDIS: She was lovely with me. 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. Landis. I would say, Aretha, please call me John. She would say, “OK, I will. Mr. Landis.” If she was frustrated or unhappy, she would let you know, but I don’t have enough good things about her. The props have to go to John and Danny, because that was their intention. We have to put these people on film.
DEADLINE: Did the studio recognize the significance of that at the time?
LANDIS: I haven’t made a studio picture since, because it was such a horrible time with the new management of Universal coming in. But the Blues Brothers 2000, it’s not only Aretha again, but Erykah Badu, and Johnny Lang, Eric Clapton, Charlie Musselwhite, Koko Taylor. 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! B.B. King…I don’t know if you ever saw it. Don’t watch the movie, listen to the soundtrack. We recorded most of it live.
DEADLINE: You describe the studio as being tepid on the soundtrack…
LANDIS: They weren’t tepid. They didn’t want it.
DEADLINE: How did they respond when you showed them the first film?
LANDIS: Well, on The Blues Brothers, it was a special time. 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. 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. Those guys wouldn’t be hired now, and they certainly wouldn’t be allowed to make those films.
DEADLINE: Sounds like you benefited and had the support?
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 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. 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.
We had this deal and suddenly Universal found themselves in this position where John and Danny had the number one album in the country. John and Danny were the stars of the number one hit TV show in the country. 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!
DEADLINE: What happened?
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 there was no screenplay. And I said, “Of course!”
We started shooting in Chicago without a completed screenplay and so there was no budget process, really, because I was in production. That was very fortunate because I was allowed to finish the movie. It was insane and got very not nice reviews, but thank god, it was a big hit.
DEADLINE: Would Dan Aykroyd have played the D Day character in Animal House?
LANDIS: That was written for Danny.
DEADLINE: Amazing that Lorne Michaels wouldn’t let him out.
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. So he wasn’t letting anyone else out. He didn’t let Paul Shaffer be involved in the movie, either.
DEADLINE: What a nice trip down memory lane this has been.
LANDIS: I just want to say, to me Aretha Franklin is a true American icon. Her passing is a tragedy, but she must be remembered. Her head should be on Mount Rushmore. She is 100% what they call in England a national treasure.
DEADLINE: It really is on the level of Frank Sinatra or Ray Charles.
LANDIS: I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my career to work with some truly extraordinary artists. What’s odd is that when some people die, they become mythological. John Belushi, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, I’ve worked with several people like that, who’ve passed and then become one of the gods. In Aretha’s case, it is totally deserved.