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Music is Crucial to Every Film: John Legend on "Southside with You"

After production had finished on writer/director Richard Tanne’s “Southside with You,” the ambitious project about Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date received a special boost with the inclusion of creative multi-hyphenate John Legend. Not long after winning a Grammy and an Oscar for the song "Glory" from Ava DuVernay's 2014 film "Selma," Legend became an executive producer for "Southside with You" and contributed a gorgeous closing credits ballad, "Start." 

Under his Get Lifted Film Company shingle, Legend has expanded his creative prowess to film and TV as an executive producer. A few months ago, Get Lifted gave American audiences a gripping look at the history of the Underground Railroad with the WGN series “Underground" (starring Aldis Hodge and Jurnee Smollett-Bell), which was recently approved for a second season. “Southside with You” marks one of Legend’s biggest endeavors yet as an executive producer, which will be followed up this December with “La La Land,” the latest film from “Whiplash” director Damien Chazelle, a modern musical starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. It was also recently announced, a few days after this interview was conducted, that Legend will be producing a new series on the historic Black Wall Street, alongside "Southside with You" lead actress Tika Sumpter spoke with Legend about the film, composing the song "Start," his personal experience watching Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" and more. 

As an executive producer and with your company Get Lifted, what do you want to bring to TV and film? 

We want to be interesting. We want to be provocative but to be entertaining. A lot of things we get involved with have kind of a historical and social relevance as well. It’s just things that I find interesting, and I think other people would find interesting too. 

I heard that before you became an executive producer on “Southside with You,” you were monitoring the film while it was being made.  

Yeah, we saw the script early on, and we thought it was really exciting. We didn’t formally get involved until later on in the process. But we loved the idea of it first of all, the idea that they’ve lived such an important life and obviously it has been historic and all of these wonderful things, but it all started with a date here in Chicago. And somebody will do the big biopic later, but I think it’s cool that the first film about them is just this small thing about their first date, and it really could have been anybody. But the fact that you know that it’s them, and what they’ve become since then, I think makes it more interesting, more special. 

What did you think about the music in particular when you saw the film? 

I loved the music, I thought it was very nostalgic. And it really sets the tone for that time period, and just from the opening with Janet Jackson playing, it feels good. 

It reminded me of how the pilot for “Underground” kicks in with Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead.” They're music cues that grab you from the beginning and don’t let go. 

Music is so crucial to every film, I think. I think every film is made better by having smart music supervision that’s really in tune with the spirit of the visual content. So, we always want that to be a hallmark of what we do, and were glad to help contribute to the music in any way we could here. 

Among its many great values, “Southside with You” presents a woman who is trying to not live a double life, but also not be merely someone’s girlfriend. I think that’s really important for people to see that, especially when progress is not just about race, it’s also about gender. 

Yeah, I think so. And she was concerned about the career implications of dating her junior associate. She wanted to establish herself as a career woman, which she ended up doing in Chicago, and she didn’t want it to be about who she was dating. That was obviously her conflict and what she was battling within the film, but clearly they figured out they were meant for each other [laughs]. I think even on the first date, at least in our film, that you start to see the seeds of that. 

It’s so important to present that, especially with a female president on the horizon. 

Mm-hmm, exactly! And then the more you hear about Hillary [Clinton's] early years, you see a lot of parallels and [the Clinton’s] relationship too. And everybody wants Michelle to run for president too! [Laughs] 

One important passage in "Southside with You" involves Barack and Michelle catching a screening of Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing." Do you remember the first time you saw that film?

I saw it pretty early on. I didn’t see it in the theater. I saw it on video pretty soon after it came out. 

Do you remember what you were thinking when you saw it, or where you were? 

I was a kid, so I was 13 years old probably, when I saw it? I didn’t grow up in a city like that, I grew up in a small city, a small town, really, in the Midwest. It was kind of like a different world for me, looking at Brooklyn and looking at what was going on in Brooklyn at that time. It felt kind of exotic to me at the time, because I was just a small-town kid. A little bit country [laughs]. 

Even now it affects viewers. 

Yeah, and it’s very … with the issues with police and all of these things, and anger boiling up in the black community, you see all of that still happening now. And Spike [Lee] highlighted it in such an incisive way. 

When you were writing the song “Start” for “Southside with You,” what were you thinking about? 

I was really in the feeling of the film. The score was already set, so there was this music playing, leading into where my song would come. I even tried to make it fit the key of the previous music that was coming in, and I was just staying in the spirit of where the music already was. And I wanted to write something that was intimate, because the whole film is very intimate to me. Even though they’ve lived these big lives, this date, and the film, are both very simple and intimate. I wanted the song to feel like that too. And the lyric, of course, kind of talks about the idea of the start of a relationship, and the uncertainty that you might feel something new with somebody and you don’t know where it’s going to go, but you know it won’t go anywhere unless you start [laughs]. 

I’m curious about you as a moviegoer. Do you get time to watch a lot of movies? 

I watch a lot of movies [laughs]. 

What do you like? 

Well, I tend to like things that make me think. I like a lot of documentaries, I like political movies and political thrillers. But I also like a good action movie. I like a pretty wide range. I don’t know, it’s hard to say, I just like well-made movies at the end of the day. 

You also executive produced the upcoming film “La La Land,” the next movie from the director of “Whiplash,” Damien Chazelle. What can you tell me about that? 

I’m so excited for people to see it! It’s so beautiful. Damien Chazelle directed it and wrote it, and I just loved “Whiplash.” That was one of my favorite films from that year. And when I had a chance to just sit down with him, I was just gushing about that, and he was like, “Well, we’ve got this new thing we’re working on, and we wanted to see if you wanted to get involved.” Part of it was that he wanted me to write some music, and get involved in that side, and then they offered me the role of Keith, so I decided to take on that, which is my first kind of major speaking role in a film. And I wrote a song for it, and executive produced it. Wait till you see it, man. Emma [Stone] and Ryan [Gosling] are so good in it. It’s kind of nostalgic, like a classic Hollywood musical in a lot of ways. It’s so beautifully shot. It will make you feel good [laughs]. 

As a musician, watching “Whiplash,” what was your experience? 

Well, when I watched it, I was like, “I’ve never had a teacher like that!” And I always wondered, I would talk to some of my band members about it. They said, “We didn’t have any teachers like that,” or no one had one that extreme I think. In some ways it was a little unrealistic about how extreme the teacher was, but maybe that teacher exists out there, I just haven’t encountered them. But it was powerful! I thought the way that the music fit into the film was so well done, and I knew that Damien would be a perfect person to make a musical. And he really gets music and knows how to shoot it. He did such a great job. 

And it’s a movie about someone working really hard at their skill. 

And I love that! I love that. I love that idea that you’ve got to spend a lot of time—intense time—getting better at your craft. 

Going back to “Southside with You,” another thing that’s really important is its presentation of the south side. It has peaceful images of people walking around in the summer, at night. Thank you for getting that image out there in the world. 

I think people who live in Chicago know that it’s not a war zone. I think that it’s good to see it in this light. 

And lastly, let’s go back to 2008. I know you did some campaigning for President Obama that year. Do you remember your thoughts, or where you were, when he was announced as president? 

Oh, I was emotional. I cried a little bit. I remember crying when—he was speaking in Grant Park and I was in Los Angeles, and we had been working that day and we were at the Sofitel in the lobby bar. We were watching it like it was the Super Bowl, the election results coming in [laughs]. And I’m watching his speech in Grant Park, and I saw the older black folks in the audience. I saw them crying, and it made me cry, because I just thought about what they’ve seen in America, and the progression that they’ve seen American go through. For them to live to see that happen, it really made me emotional. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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