Interview: John Landis, director of The Blues Brothers

John Landis pictureUniversal Studios Home Entertainment released The Blues Brothers on Blu-ray on July 26 ($19.99), and to celebrate we looked back at an interview we conducted with the classic comedy movie’s director, John Landis, back in 2004. At that time, there was much ballyhoo regarding the music-filled fim’s DVD release, which featured two versions, both of which are also on the Blu-ray.

Disc Dish: Tell us about the two different versions of The Blues Brothers, the original theatrical cut and extended version that includes an additional 17 minutes.

John Landis: My original intention in 1979 was to have a road show version of The Blues Brothers, which was about 29 minutes longer than the release cut — it had an intermission and stuff. At that time, the exhibitors had tremendous power. If they didn’t feel the picture would make money, they wouldn’t book it and you’d be screwed. The Blues Brothers, and this is not that long ago, was perceived by the exhibition community as a “black movie,” which really caught us by surprise. I’ll never forget, [former Universal chairman] Lew Wasserman called me into his office and introduced me to Ted Mann [who owned Los Angeles’ Mann Theater chain]. At that time, Westwood Village was the premiere place in Los Angeles for a movie. Lew said to him, ‘Please tell Mr. Landis what you told me.’ And [Mann] told me to my face, ‘Mr. Landis, I don’t want blacks in Westwood.’

DD: Whoaaaaa.

Landis: I was, like, ‘Excuse me?’ Lew Wasserman didn’t say ‘you have to cut it.’ But he made a gesture with his two fingers like scissors, and I thought, “Okay.” So, I made a bunch of lifts, some were very small and some were quite large. We previewed it in West Los Angeles and after that preview, I then cut out an additional 17 minutes. All these lifts and trims were thrown out in 1985. About five years ago, they found the print that I previewed in West L.A. before that second bunch of cuts. It turned out that the son of the manager of the theater had stolen the print. And that’s the extended version on the disc. So it’s not my original cut, but it is 17 minutes longer than the release cut.

DD: So that means there’s another 10 minutes or so floating around from all those years ago.

Landis: It could be out there!

DD: The film stills plays just fine in its two available versions.

The Blues Brothers movie scene

Belushi and Aykroyd are Joliet Jake and Elwood in The Blues Brothers.

Landis: The Blues Brothers was such a weird movie for us to make at that time of Abba and The Bee Gees. And this is a tribute to Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi and Danny’s passion for this music. To get performers like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, James Brown and John Lee Hooker was amazing. And how did we get these people? The answer is, we called them. Universal Records didn’t even want the soundtrack. They figured “Who’s going to buy this shit?” Atlantic Records, a so-called ‘black label,” put out the record, and they refused to put John Lee Hooker on it. And that was in 1979!

DD: What was it like working with such legendary artists as Ray and Aretha and James?

Landis: The only trouble I had was that when many of them sing, like Aretha and James, they sing every song differently each and every time they sing it. It’s part of what makes them great artists, but it makes them suck at lip-synching. James Brown’s number was supposed to be pre-recorded, but he just couldn’t do it. He’s become much more proficient at some of his own stuff, but this was gospel. So we ended up saying, ‘Fuck it, we’ll do it live,’ and that’s what we did. We also recorded John Lee Hooker live and that was thrilling for me.

About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.