The Blues Brothers is a trove of cameos, many of them from the world of gospel and soul. Writer Dan Aykroyd was determined for authenticity into the realm of the musical genre, which is why he was so eager for blues luminaries Cab Calloway and Ray Charles to appear in the film. But if the film has a scene-stealer, then it’s Aretha Franklin, effortlessly taking the opportunity to poke fun at the image of jilted lover that had plagued so many women for so long.
Franklin saw herself as a gospel singer, first and foremost. Her early work stemmed from weekends singing in the church, taking in the virtues, horrors and realities that the people of her church had endured over the years. Nested in the vicinity, the young singer felt she had to sing for the parishioners and peers that gathered in the building. Indeed, that sense of truth permeated into her life and created a sense of community in the studio and stage that was a little different to the way she sang to God.
“Certainly gospel was my background,” Franklin once admitted, “Is my background. My upbringing was in the church. We had to attend regularly. And of course, the church provided a training ground for me, so to speak, as a young vocalist and certainly gave me all of the spiritual values that I needed as a young lady”.
There’s nothing saintly about her appearance in The Blues Brothers, as she berates Jake and Elwood (played by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd respectively) for their sinful ways. She pushes the band into song, singing ‘Think’ at the top of her voice.
The song takes place in a restaurant, where fried chicken wings and milkshakes are the currency of the day. Belushi respects the vocalist enough to allow her to steal the spotlight, and contents himself to dance nonchalantly in the background. The number ends with The Blues Brothers leaving the diner, only for Franklin to let out a mighty ‘shit’.
The scene oozes swagger, passion and a penchant for truth, embodying integrity in the scene that comes from her background as a civil rights activist. “Dr King was a family friend and a very good friend of my dads,” she remembered. “And occasionally, he would come to Detroit and spend time in our home or at our church, at my dad’s church. I went out in the early days of the civil rights movement and did some performances for him along with Esther Marrow and Harry Belafonte and different other vocalist, Bernard Lee, who was a foot soldier – Reverend Jackson – with Dr. King in those days.”
At no point does she come across as a pushover, but rather comes across as a singer determined to express herself in a country that discriminates her by virtue of her gender and skin colour. But the vocals show no sense of hesitation but soar through the diner to create a startling lead vocal.
Fittingly, Franklin appeared in the sequel Blues Brothers 2000, which was fitting because the film desperately needed someone to fill the void the late Belushi left behind. This time she sang her signature number, ‘Respect’, as if heralding the many women who were influencing the country in the late 1990s. And preempting the changes of the world, the song featured a triumvirate of soul vocalists bolstering the harmony sections, gifting the tune a new range and vibrato.
Like The Blues Brothers before it, the second film is wet with the presence of artists, as James Brown, B.B.King and Eric Clapton appear throughout the film. The film helped to propel the blues and gospel genre, giving the plot points an added ballast. As it happens, the songs were riveting, rebellious and exhilarating in their ambitions, but held a contemporary element that made it easier and more palatable for modern-day listeners to get involved in.
By all accounts, Aykroyd is planning a third feature for his Elwood character, which doesn’t make sense since James Brown, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin are all dead. The musicians brought an intensity and authority to the proceedings that would not have been in the scripts otherwise.
It wasn’t the car chases, the comedic beats or the neo-Nazis that made the first Blues Brothers film so enjoyable, but it was the wreath of celebrity singers, and it certainly wasn’t John Goodman’s performance that brought audiences back to the cinema 18 years after the original. There is a case to be made that Franklin made the films the classic or the enjoyable vehicles that they were. Yet it wasn’t for the lack of truth that made it such a powerful vocal performance, but the amount of it that made it so enjoyable to listen to.
Stream the scene-stealing performance in The Blues Brothers below.