It’s hard to think of it now, but when Aretha Franklin was cast in John Landis’ The Blues Brothers, her career was in a full-on funk. It had been seven years since her last top ten hit. Only two singles since then had even cracked the top 40. She was on such a downturn that the studio didn’t want her in the film. They would have preferred any number of popular disco figures at the time. Which of course, in a movie called The Blues Brothers, sounds patently ridiculous.
Landis had to fight for her. Thank goodness he won that battle.
The Blues Brothers is a big, messy, rollicking musical. Portions of it are flat and others are uproarious. None more so epitomizes the latter than Aretha’s diner scene.
Jake and Elwood show up at the Queen of Soul’s greasy spoon to recruit her husband, Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy back into the band. Mrs. Murphy is so not having it. Sassy and brassy, she tells Mr. Murphy he needs to keep himself at home. Then she breaks into her classic 1967 hit ‘Think’, and the whole enterprise positively leaves the ground. Stalking the diner, wagging her finger, tilting her head, and belting her song, the moment is so electric the movie doesn’t entirely recover from it. Sure, there are other good numbers and funny bits that follow, but nothing touches Aretha’s moment. Everything that follows is a modest let down.
It’s remarkable to consider the fact that Aretha was not cast in another movie until she reprised her role 18 years later in the better left forgotten Blues Brothers 2000. The camera loves her and she all but leaps off the screen. It’s not just the musical portion either. While Aretha may not have had much in the way of formal training as an actor, she sure as hell knew how to perform. She is both funny and formidable. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture a killer sitcom based around her Mrs. Murphy character. And had she wanted to dig deeper, it’s no reach to imagine her as the matriarch of a southern family in a film written by Horton Foote.
What a missed opportunity.
Aretha Franklin died today at the age of 76 due to complications attached to pancreatic cancer. Everyone knows what a great singer she is, and while her contributions to film are sparse, this one moment, this grand 5 minutes and 33 seconds of screen-time is choice. Beyond that, really. It’s up there with Gene Kelly stomping through a monsoon, Elvis Presley rockin’ the jailhouse, and John Cameron Mitchell explaining The Origin of Love.
It is joyous, ecstatic, unforgettable.
It is freedom.
Freedom! Freedom! FREEDOM!