The Collider Interview: John Landis

     September 1, 2005

Posted by Mr. Beaks

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The year:; 1980.; The location:; the Vamos’ rec room.; The film:; a bootlegged copy of The Blues Brothers.; The life being changed by the wildly unprecedented mix of music, comedy and car chases:; mine.

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I was seven years-old at the time, and John Landis’s puckish imagination was already warping the way I processed information.; What I loved about The Blues Brothers, which was just re-released as a two disc Special Edition DVD by Universal Home Entertainment, was that everything seemed possible.; I hadn’t seen West Side Story yet, so the notion of people breaking into song in a very real urban environment, which couldn’t be more otherworldly to me if it were Mars, was wonderfully liberating.; Watching John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Illinois state troopers lay waste to an entire shopping mall was as much a primer on anarchic comedy as anything I read in the pages of Mad Magazine.; And hearing Cab Calloway enchant an entire auditorium with his rendition of the call-and-response classic “Minnie the Moocher” was an invaluable introduction to jazz music for which I am eternally grateful.

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That gratitude would only swell as I was exposed to National Lampoon’s Animal House, An American Werewolf in London, Trading Places and, whilst rummaging through my dad’s voluminous Betamax recordings of anything that struck his fancy on The Movie Channel (the only cable station we subscribed to in my adolescence), The Kentucky Fried Movie.; That I can still, at thirty-one, recite verbatim the entire “Catholic High School Girls In Trouble” sketch and Big Jim Slade’s hyperbolic resume speaks tellingly to how profoundly and profanely that film influenced me.;

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John Landis’s films even helped my schoolwork:; I remember astounding my ninth grade “Introduction to Business” teacher with my vast knowledge of the stock market, all of which was cribbed from innumerable viewings of Trading Places; my interest in Illinois Nazis led to an “A” paper on Skokie in my junior year of high school; and, of course, I could never forget that the capital of Nebraska was Lincoln.

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Most importantly, there’s always the not insubstantial fact that my pseudonym is taken from Clarence Beeks, the guy who ends up getting sodomized by a horny male gorilla at the end of Trading Places.; This is an interview I’ve been clamoring to do ever since I made my half-assed segue into online journalism.; And now, as of last Tuesday, the Beverly Hills restaurant Kate Mantilini has been home to two classic meetings of the minds:; Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat, and John Landis and Jeremy “Mr. Beaks” Smith.;

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Not surprisingly, this interview went a bit long, so I’ve broken it up into two parts.; In this first installment, John and I discuss the critical sea change regarding his early comedies, the integral role popular music plays in his films and the great John Belushi.


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You’re doing the 25th anniversary of The Blues Brothers this year, and—

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I’m not “doing it”.; It’s happening without me.

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But you are taking part in the big screening at the Chinese.

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Oh, sure.

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Well, it’s interesting to reassess The Blues Brothers, since, at the time of its release, it was one of those films where critics reviewed the budget as much as they reviewed the movie.

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It was an interesting time.; There was a two-and-a-half year period where there were five films in production that cost more than $24 million.; There was Apocalypse Now, Heaven’s Gate, 1941, Star Trek [The Motion Picture] and The Blues Brothers.; All five films cost more than $24 million, and $24 million was the magic number that had bankrupted Fox with Cleopatra.; So, in the media, the story was “Hollywood Out of Control!”; All five of those films were tarnished; we became “1942” when we were shooting.; Ironically, four of those five movies made a profit.; Obviously, Heaven’s Gate didn’t.;

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1941 turned a profit?

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Mm-hm.; I don’t know why; I think it’s a terrible movie.

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But it has that wonderful USO dance sequence in it!

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It’s got a couple of great things in it, but—

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It’s a mess.

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It was Steven’s complete misunderstanding of Animal House, to take Tim Matheson and John Belushi and try to make them the same.; In Animal House, Bluto’s sweet, and in 1941 his character is a jerk.

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He also didn’t have Doug Kenney and Chris Miller writing for him.

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But he did have Bob Zemeckis, Bob Gale and John Milius.; The issue is just a lack of understanding of what makes characters work.; It’s interesting.; It’s a strange movie.; My wife designed it, so it looked good.; (Laughs)

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Getting back to Blues Brothers, I think it may have also been a case of critics being burned out on car chases.

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I don’t think it’s that so much as the fact that the movie was expensive, we were very young and had just had success with Animal House.; The movie was hugely successful.; It made a lot of money and continues to. ;I think that what people forget, especially younger people, but that’s fine – you know, I had this experience with Animal House.; Animal House recently had its twenty-fifth anniversary, and suddenly the same individual critics who shit on it when it came out were declaring it an “American Classic”.; You know, John Huston said, “Buildings, prostitutes and directors become respectable with age”, so maybe that’s it.;

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But the reality is that The Blues Brothers had a lot of very not so disguised racism working against it.; We had a very strange thing that was totally unexpected, which is, if you’ll remember – oh, you don’t remember! – in 1979 the big acts and the music was entirely disco.; It was the Bee Gees and Abba, and it couldn’t get any whiter than the music on A.M. radio.; Rhythm-and-blues was really in decline; except for Ray Charles, no one in our show was working.; Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi’s passion for the music, they did an interesting and unique thing, which was Danny legitimately exploited their own celebrity of the moment to focus attention on these acts.; And it was very successful in that respect.; To give you an idea of the tenor of the times, Universal Studios’ record company, MCA Records, they wouldn’t put out the soundtrack album because they said, “No one’s going to buy this.”; So, when we made a deal with Atlantic, a so-called “soul and jazz label”, they wouldn’t put John Lee Hooker on the album!; They actually said to me, “He’s too old and too black.; No one’s going to buy this shit.” ;So, it’s a testament to the movie that they all went on, especially John Lee Hooker, to great success because there was attention paid.; It was a strange time; we were told we wouldn’t get theaters.; We had our exhibitor screenings and, at that time, before Reagan destroyed the antitrust acts, the theaters actually had some muscle.; They would screen your picture, and, if they didn’t like it, they wouldn’t book it.; The Blues Brothers was a road show – it had an intermission and everything – and we were told by theater owners around the country that they didn’t want blacks in their theaters.; They said, “Only black people will see this movie.”; And we were so shocked.; I ended up having to cut the movie so they could get an extra two runs a day.; And, then, when the movie came out, it was lumped in with all the other big, expensive movies.;

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I’m so used to it, you know.; In my career, I’ve always had tremendous recognition overseas, and a critical schmuck over here.; It’s an interesting thing with movies:; they have a life of their own; they exist.; Everything is about who you are, how old you are, and where you are when you see it.; It has everything to do with how you remember a movie.; So, for me, I’ve made something like twenty-five movies, and when people approach me, I’m never really sure what movie it is.; It all depends on how old they are and where they were when they saw it.; And I’m often surprised.; Obviously, Animal House and The Blues Brothers, but very often it’s Trading Places or Three Amigos or Spies Like Us or Coming to America or “Thriller”.; I get “Thriller” a lot.;

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I also wonder if you’re a victim of that ghettoization that happens to a lot of horror genre directors.;

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When you say “ghettoization”, you’re saying “typed”.; All directors get “typed” very much like actors, and that all has to do with financial success.; I mean, Guillermo del Toro has told me straight out that he only wants to make horror and fantasy films.; But that’s not my interest.; I love horror and fantasy, but I love musicals and I love westerns.; I love everything!; So, for me it’s much easier to mount a comedy or a horror picture than it would be to do a small romance or a little detective story.; That has to do with financial success; it’s what they think you can do.; And that’s unfortunate.

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Well, I recently talked to David Cronenberg, and I was shocked to find that there were many studio projects he tried to get attached to they wouldn’t even let him get near.

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No.; Absolutely not.; David Cronenberg, who is legitimately a great filmmaker, they would look at him and say, “Oh, he makes weird, exploding head movies”.;

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Right.; And I thought that was awful.

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You cannot underestimate the people who decide what gets done.; Just look at the product.

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Do you ever feel a desire to go back and make movies on a large scale?

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Well, The Blues Brothers was particularly gigantic, but I’ve never really made big movies.; Do you mean huge, giant movies?

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Yeah.

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I’ve never really made those.; What’s another big movie I’ve made?

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I guess it’s not so much the size of the physical production, but you do such a great job of suggesting scale, especially in the opening of your movies.; Like in Trading Places:; you start with that wonderful montage of location shots depicting life in Philadelphia.

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That’s certainly not a big movie.; It was a very inexpensive movie.

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It was inexpensive, but it feels big.; You feel like something big is about to happen.

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I’ll tell you a story.; Spies Like Us, which is now a period picture because it was a Cold War movie, although the politics are completely prevalent now – it’s Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and these idiots in the White House are even talking about bringing back the “Star Wars” program, which is retarded and crazy.; Anyway, Spies Like Us is a movie, because of the economics of the time, we actually shot in Pinewood [Studios in London] most of the time.; But we were in Norway, Morocco, one day in California, one day in Washington D.C. to make that movie.; Basically, going to Morocco and Norway was the cheapest way to do it at the time.; And the picture has tremendous size to it, because it looks good.; But I’ll never forget Charles Champlin in the L.A. Times wrote a piece about how Back to the Future, which came out around that time [in 1985], had been shot entirely on the lot at Universal, and was a worthwhile production, while he talked about the money that had been pissed away on Spies Like Us, which had gone all around the world.; So, I had to write him a letter saying, “Did you know that Back to the Future cost six times what Spies Like Us cost?”; And he just didn’t care.;

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You know, a movie’s a movie.; The only thing money buys you is time.; If you have the time, you can do really big stuff.; Those car chases in The Blues Brothers were really difficult to stage, and you needed the scale.; But that’s the only big movie I’ve really made.; I’ve worked on a lot of big movies, but, as a director, that’s the biggest picture I’ve ever made.;

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And you’ve never shot in scope.

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No, I never did.; Now, I would.; I almost shot Three Amigos in scope, but I didn’t because, at the time, the vast majority of people saw your movies on television.; That was before letterboxing and flat screen T.V.s and stuff.; And when you saw those movies on television, they were so fucked up.; Cinemascope and Panavision movies were so butchered, so I just, “No, I’ll do the least damage this way.”

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Kubrick had the same mindset.

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Yeah, he always matted his negative, which I did on Trading Places.; That made Paramount go really crazy.

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One thing that I’ve always loved about your movies is how there are always these little non-sequitur, throwaway gags.; My favorite of these is John Belushi in Animal House, slouched in a chair, completely obliterated after the toga party, looking to the table next to him, seeing a jar of mustard, and casually dumping it on his stomach.; Do you remember how that moment came about?

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I do remember that.; It’s cut there.; It went further.; John did a whole thing where he took the mustard and rubbed it on himself, and he did this whole song, “I Am the Mustard Man!”; But I cut that short.

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You did these two great films with John, and had such a great rapport.; Could you have seen yourself doing more films with him?

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Oh, absolutely.; His drug problem… on The Blues Brothers it was very difficult for us emotionally; we were battling all the time about his drug abuse because it was going to kill him.; It was bad, and it obviously got worse later.; We were supposed to do a movie after [The Blues Brothers], and I said, “John, I’ll only do it if you go to rehab and you clean up.; If you clean up, I will be there for you 100%.; But I’m not going to work with you if you’re going to be so fucked up.”; You know, John actually lived longer than I thought he would.

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Really?

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But I loved John.; And it’s a tragedy on every level, not only on a personal level.; What a loss!; This guy was so talented!; I don’t think you really saw how great he was in the movies he made.; You see flashes of it in the first two seasons of Saturday Night Live, and you see flashes of it in Animal House and The Blues Brothers, then very little after that.

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He was one of those guys who could just explode a comedic scene.; The minute he walked on screen, you were primed to laugh.; There was a sense of, “I cannot wait to see what he’s going to do”.;

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John was actually a fine actor, a genuinely great actor.; Physically, people always think of him as fat, but he was never really fat until the end.; He was big.; An Albanian peasant.; He was a football star in high school, and, like a lot of big men, like Fatty Arbuckle or Jackie Gleason or Oliver Hardy, very graceful.; Very light on his feet.; He was great, Johnny.; Great.; (Pause); Great face.; Like Stan Laurel, he had the ability, which I exploited in Animal House… how do I explain it?; You could watch his thought process.; Stan Laurel does that; you can watch on his forehead, it’s printed:; “What.; Am.; I.; Going.; To.; Do?”; And it’s just so funny.

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It’s interesting that you bring up Stan Laurel, because, as I’ve grown older and watched more movies, it seems that you’ve learned a great deal from Leo McCarey, who knew how to give a comedic scene space, to give a gag time to develop.

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Well, especially when you have a great performer.; But time, absolutely.; There’s a joke… this joke was actually told to me by George Burns, but it’s one of the great, old vaudeville jokes, and it goes like this:; you’re the young, neophyte performer and I’m the aged and much-beloved vaudeville and Broadway legend.; Ask me, “To what do you owe your great success?”

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“To wh—“

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“Timing!”; (Laughs); George told me that joke.; But, you know, timing is everything.; And not just in comedy.; In everything.

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But getting back to McCarey, were there any directors in particular who you could look to and say they influenced your style?

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Oh, my god, all of them!; Leo McCarey, Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, Capra, Hitchcock, Stevens… I could go on and on.; Jack Arnold!; You talked about It Came from Outer Space earlier – Jack Arnold.;

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Jack Arnold never gets nearly enough credit.

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He made The Mouse That Roared.; He made The Creature from the Black Lagoon, which is one of the most ripped-off movies.

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And features the most beautifully designed monster in film history.

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It’s a great creature.; Designed by a woman [Milicent Patrick].;

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Did you know that there’s a whole cult of Creature fans?; Benecio Del Toro’s obsessed with the Creature.

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Bencio Del Toro?; Really?

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I’ve heard that he would love to make a Creature film.

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That’s interesting.; I almost did a remake of The Creature from the Black Lagoon.; This is a terrible story.; I was going to produce it, Jack was going to direct it, we were going to shoot it in 3-D, Rick Baker was going to design the Creature.; We had a very good script written by Nigel Kneale.; I thought it should be in 3-D, and I started experimenting with all of the different 3-D processes – and the good one really is the Polaroid one.; So, we shot a test with a Playboy Plamate – I think her name was Gig Gangel – in Steven Spielberg’s swimming pool.; And it was incredible!; Naked girl swimming in Spielberg’s pool, and we had a monster hand [reaching for her].; So, we show the test to Sid Scheinberg, who’s running Universal at the time, and Sid got all excited.; He said, “Oh, this is fantastic, but we shouldn’t do this with the Creature, we should do it with… JAWS 3-D!!!”; And that was the end of that; they made that piece of shit.; And then they also used a different process!; I sold him on the Polaroid because of how good it looked, but he used the cheaper, shitty [process].

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I was wondering when it was you were planning this, and if it was around the time they tried and failed to bring back 3-D in the early 1980’s.

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Oh, yeah.; They’ll get 3-D without glasses soon, but to do 3-D really well you need two projectors, which is why IMAX is so great.

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Now, you’ve obviously got a deep affection for the horror genre.

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I do.; I really love it, but I think it’s very funny that I’m a “Master of Horror”.; (Laughs); I think that’s so funny, because I’m with Dario Argento, Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, Don Coscarelli, Takashi Miike, and, gosh, Larry Cohen.; These guys have made a lot of horror pictures, and I’ve made two!; (Laughs)

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Does that bother you?

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No, I think it’s funny.; Depending on who I’m talking to, I’m like, “You’re a ‘Master of Horror’” or “You’re a ‘Master of Comedy’” or “You’re a ‘Master of Musicals’”!

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That’s good.; Howard Hawks did it all.

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He didn’t put his name on The Thing [from Another World], though.; That was Christian Nyby.; (Pause); That’s a good movie.; That’s still a good movie.; And, you know, I think that Carpenter’s is a really good movie, too.; When I saw it, I was blown away, and the whole theater hated it.; I’ve had that experience twice:; once with [The Thing] and once with The Long Goodbye.;

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I love that film.; It’s one of my favorite Altman movies.;

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Mark Rydell is so funny.

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And Jim Bouton as the killer.

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And [Marlow] shoots him.; It’s great.

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Your use of music has always been tremendous, and not just in The Blues Brothers.; In American Werewolf In London, you use all those different variations on “Blue Moon”, but you save the best, Sam Cooke, for the transformation.; Was there any reason for this?

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I’ve just always loved that cover.; I don’t know.; I wrote it for that; every song in the movie was in the script.; The only ones I didn’t get were “Moonshadow” by Cat Stevens, which I intended to use as the main title song.; Cat Stevens wouldn’t give it to me, and then it pissed me off years later to see “Peace Train” used to sell Toyotas.; I was like, “You fucker.”; But I didn’t get three songs:; the other was a version Bob Dylan did on [Self Portrait], and the last one, which I really wanted, and which you can get now but you couldn’t get at the time, was Elvis’s early recording of “Blue Moon”.; It’s yodeling; it’s really eerie.; But I got most of the songs I went for.

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But with something like The Blues Brothers – and I was lucky because I had a mother who got me into, among other genres, R&B at an early age—

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Oh, that’s great.

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But I think for a lot of kids, I think The Blues Brothers was their first exposure to John Lee Hooker and Cab Calloway.; And while I think you were providing a valuable service at the time, now, or even back then, it gets tarred for having exploited the music.

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Tarred by who?; By white folks.

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Music critics.; They also came after The Commitments for the same reason.;

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Well, one of the ironies is that Alan Parker [the director of The Commitments], when The Blues Brothers came out, was one of the people who criticized it.; He criticized not the movie so much, but John and Danny.; So, when he made The Commitments, I was like, “Hello!?!?”

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I’ve never understood why The Blues Brothers came in for that kind of criticism when you had the musicians in the movie.

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Well, the musicians never criticized it.; Talk to anybody.; B.B. King.; They’ll tell you it changed everything for them.

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But B.B. King’s career was kind of re-launched by Into the Night.; That when I remember him making his big resurgence.;

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B.B.’s amazing.; That guy’s like an African king.; He’s got, I don’t know, twenty-six children or something from a lot of women.; And he keeps working because he’s got to put them all through college.; He’s on the road 200 days a year, and he’s eighty.; Amazing.

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Part II is on the way, with John’s candid remembrances of Eddie Murphy and fond recollections of Elmer Bernstein.; See you next… Friday.

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