There’s been a trend on the interwebs
of sites passing off information that’s been hidden for years – usually
stowed away in antique technology like ‘books’ or ‘magazines’ – as
news. Who am I to buck the trend? Instead of pretending that this stuff
is news I’ll present it to you as interesting bits of info that you may
have never learned otherwise. It’s not news, but it’s probably news to
Last week John Landis appeared at the BFI in London and gave an entertaining talk about his career; I was lucky enough to be in the audience and got to enjoy Landis’ truly no-holds-barred anecdotes about more than thirty years working in the movie industry, doing every job from stunt man to director.
One of his more intriguing anecdotes explained why The Blues Brothers, his 1980 film starring John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd, ended up cutting 15 minutes of footage for the release – footage that Landis reinstated for the DVD. Even though the day of the roadshow had long been over by 1980, Landis’ vision for the film was a major roadshow release, complete with an intermission. But according to Landis this plan wouldn’t fly because The Blues Brothers was seen as too black.
The film came out at the height of disco, which Landis calls ‘the whitest music ever.’ The Blues Brothers was conceived as an homage to and promotion for classic soul and rhythm and blues, but some of that music hadn’t quite reached recognized ‘classic’ status yet. In fact, Landis was able to get folks like Aretha Franklin and James Brown in the film because they simply weren’t working that much at the time.
Small-minded exhibitors of the time looked at The Blues Brothers and thought the film had only one audience: blacks. And that, to them, wasn’t what they were looking for. One very powerful exhibitor told Landis that he wouldn’t book the film in his theaters because he didn’t want black people coming to Westwood, which was then the fashionable place for movie premieres.
With the number of available screens shrinking – especially the kinds of prestige screens where The Blues Brothers could get a roadshow presentation (which was already incredibly old fashioned at the time) – Landis couldn’t fight the studio execs who wanted him to trim the picture. The film had originally been projected to open on 1200 screens and it ended up going out on half that number.
The racism didn’t stop with the theatrical release, either. While The Blues Brothers was a Universal film, the company’s record label, MCA, refused to release the soundtrack. It’s possible that they just didn’t think these oldies were going to sell, but Landis believes that it was the blackness of the artists that turned off MCA. The Blues Brother soundtrack ended up being released on Atlantic Records, a company that had a history of being a ‘race’ label – ie, one that released plenty of black music.
History sided with The Blues Brothers, of course. The film went on to be a massive success, and it’s actually strange to think that anyone at the time thought the movie was too black. And the idea that the soundtrack couldn’t find a home is also bizarre from this vantage point in history – especially in a post-The Big Chill landscape. Now, if people had declined to release Blues Brothers 2000 I would understand where they were coming from…