Last week the world lost a true icon. It was announced on 16th August that Aretha Franklin had died due to pancreatic cancer. Franklin was an undeniably sensational singer but she was so much more than that. She was the true Queen of Soul and defined soul in the Sixties. She was also an influential and powerful figure in history. Her songs became anthems for social change as women and African-Americans adopted them for their own. Just look at what she did to Otis Redding’s ‘Respect”: she made that song her own and gave women a rousing call for themselves. She was incredible. And I could easily go on and on talking about the massive impact that the singer made upon the world. I won’t, however, as there are bound to be better people out there doing just that right now. All I really know is, I loved Aretha Franklin. I think the first song I heard her sing was ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ and I adored it. She made it seem so effortless but, no matter how hard I tried (and believe me I tried) I could never replicate her skills. I just couldn’t believe how fantastic and powerful a singer she was. Everything else I heard just got better. But, no matter how much I love listening to her sing, there is one part of her career that sticks with me more than anything: her performances in the two Blues Brothers films.
I went through a period when I was younger where I was obsessed with the original The Blues Brothers film and, to a much lesser extent, its sequel Blues Brothers 2000. It helped that this was also at the height of my adoration of 1980s Dan Aykroyd and his lovely face. Still, there was a point in my life when I watched this film basically every other week. I started listening exclusively to classic Rhythm and Blues music and would spent so much time hanging around that deserted section of my nearest HMV. I’d be looking at Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker CDs with only a handful of middle-aged men for company. I loved it. That film literally changed my life for more than a few years. It got embarrassing at times: like the amount of times I’d force friends to watch it and sing along with me. It’s super cringey looking back.
Watching Blues Brothers now is a strange experience. I have such a deep-rooted love for the film but now, in my epic maturity, I see some minor flaws within it. For one thing, it’s a little too long and the narrative is a kind of sketch show like at times. There are so many ideas thrown together in a mish-mash that the film nearly loses control on a number of occasions. If I haven’t seen the film for a while, I suddenly realise that there are massive sections that I’d just forgotten existed because it doesn’t really add to the story. However, The Blues Brothers is a film made with such love and affection that it ends up kind of working out. You can’t watch this film and not have fun. It fully embraces slapstick and absurdity in such a way that you won’t really want to question it in the end. Plus, any film that takes car chases and crash sequences to that level deserves a hell of a lot of respect.
But, when it comes down to it, The Blues Brothers isn’t really even about the movie. It’s about the music. This was a film created by Dan Aykroyd and John Landis to highlight the great musicians that were quickly being forgotten thanks to the emergence of disco in the late 70s. Rhythm and Blues wasn’t the popular genre it had once been so the film got as many of the greatest names together as they could to celebrate it. It’s one of the best all-round soundtracks in the history of film and I could never tire of listening to it over and over. Every performance is sensational. Cab Calloway crooning through ‘Minnie the Moocher’ or Ray Charles performing ‘Shake Your Tail Feather’ are iconic moments. But there is no scene more iconic than Aretha Franklin singing ‘Think’ in the middle of diner.
Seriously, I could watch that scene on repeat for the rest of my days and never tire of it. Franklin was initial nervous about appearing in the film but managed to create quite the performance. Made all the better thanks to the knowledge that she struggled so much with the lip sync simply because she was such a soulful performer. It meant she never sang a song the same way twice so trying to recreate it on-screen was difficult for her. That’s just what happens when you work with real singers. I mean James Brown and John Lee Hooker hated the idea of lip syncing so much that they just recorded it live. All the headache was worth it in the end, of course. The performances are all stand-outs and Aretha, in particular, steals the show.
Since her death was announced, I’ve watched that scene so many times. She was an absolute icon who will be remembered for years to come. The Blues Brothers may not be the most important thing she’s ever done but it is yet more evidence of what she could do and how iconic she was.
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