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John Legend on Love, the Obamas, and Southside with You

The R&B star who has entered the TV and film business shares why he signed on as executive producer of this Chicago-made movie.

John Legend (right) with actors Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter at the Music Box screening of Southside with You.   Photo: Stephen Green Photography

A film like Southside With You shouldn’t work. Reading a description alone (“27-year-old Barack Obama takes his boss, 25-year-old Michelle Obama, out on the most epic first date ever”) would make even the less discerning filmgoer wince. And yet Southside manages to far exceed its expectations and give audiences something increasingly rare: a lovely little romantic comedy.

Quiet and winsome, a warm haze filters through the lens for most of the Richard Tanne’s debut film, steeping it in a sort of “unremembered” nostalgia that will make most audiences contemplate their own past perfect dates. Parker Sawyers (Barack Obama) and Tika Sumpter (Michelle Obama and producer on the project) effortlessly carry all 84 minutes with stirring romantic tension and performances that are a loving tribute to the real-life First Couple.

But Southside could have been a small-time indie if not for the starpower boost from executive producer John Legend and his Get Lifted Film Company. Legend, best known for his pop and R&B musical stylings (which have scored him Grammys and Oscars), is not new to film production. Besides Southside with You, Get Lifted also produces the heavy and underrated WGN show Underground with nine works currently in development.

For Legend, adding his name, production company, and promotional efforts to the film was a no-brainer. “Seeing the beginning of what they became is really inspiring and really makes you believe in love and its power,” says Legend, who is married to model and TV personality Chrissy Teigen. Legend also wrote the song “Start,” a lovely, falsetto-heavy accompaniment to the film.

In a recent chat with Chicago, Legend discusses the importance of telling stories with diverse characters, reveals his songwriting process, and touches on why he values speaking out rather than staying quiet.

Why do you think music is so integral to storytelling?

I think you can see it in this film from the beginning, when the Janet [Jackson] song, [“Miss You Much,”] comes in at the very beginning of the film. It creates a certain tone that you wouldn’t make just through the shot. And it lets you know what time period it is. It gives you a certain sense of—well, I grew up in that period when that song was big—nostalgia for that era. It brought a lightness and a feeling that Janet’s voice gives you, that that beat gives you. It helps set the tone for the film.

What was the transition like from doing music almost exclusively to having a production company?

Well, in a lot of ways it’s the same to me. It’s all part of the same story about trying to put out great art. It’s a collaborative process. I think film and TV are more collaborative than music; there are more moving parts when you’re putting together TV or film production. But either way, my mission in life is to make the world more interesting, more beautiful and bring more light to it.

I’ve noticed that in terms of your film and TV work, you’ve chosen to tell really important stories. They can be these heavy stories, like the series Underground or Selma, or they can be loving and light, like Southside with You.

I think, particularly when we’re talking about portraying black characters on the screen, we want to see a range of stories. Slavery is important for us to talk about. But we also want to see us falling in love. We want to see us laughing. We want to see us enjoying each other and building a family. All these other things that human beings do. We should be allowed that. So we try to make films and television that show a range of experiences and ranges of points of views and interesting subcultures and interesting communities.

When did you first get involved in Southside with You?

We read the script in pre-production, but we didn’t become formally involved until after it was shot. We saw a rough cut and were so excited by it. I wrote the song, “Start,” for the film after having seen it and really sitting with it and listening to the other music in the film. We know what [the Obamas] become and they lead this really incredible grand life, but a lot of people don’t know how they started out.

What would you say first drew you to the script? What was the appeal for you?

Honestly, that it chose to be so small. You can do the grand biopic of them, but this movie was smart in its ambition to just be a small, subtle love story. It’s intimate and close and conversational. The biggest speech is when he’s speaking to the little church group for the community. But most of what we see in the film is just two people getting to know each other.

I really liked that about the film. You realize there aren’t a lot of love stories like that.

Anywhere! Most rom coms, they have a gimmick. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and stuff like that. No diss to those movies. They’re fun, but very seldom do you see a love story that’s gimmick-free and just really how human beings interact in a pure sense.

You know the Obamas pretty well. Would you say the film does justice to who they are as people?

Obviously they were different people then—it’s 1989. Close to 27 years ago. They’ve grown up and you’re never the same as you were back then. But I think you can see the seeds of who they’ve become. In the film you see that, first of all, they’re very talented and intelligent people in their own right. But I think the fact that they were colleagues—and in fact, she was his superior at the law firm—set up an interesting dynamic where she was never just Barack Obama’s wife. She’s actually skeptical about going on a date with Barack because she doesn’t want him to mess up her reputation at work. The fact that she’s giving him a tough time and he has to work to earn her trust and affection, it’s cool to see that from the beginning.

The film seems to be created with the rightful perspective that Michelle is the prize.

Yeah! She was the prize in the film, but you also see how obviously gifted he was in his ability to inspire the group in the church. And who has an epic date like that? Where you go to the movies, you go to the art gallery, you go to the community organizing, and ice cream. All of that in one date.

Have you seen the spot where they ate the ice cream in real life?

No, I haven’t.

There’s a plaque commemorating it.

Oh, I need to go see that.

What was the songwriting process for “Start” like?

It was really about immersing myself in the film and then capturing the intimacy of the film, because the way I sing on “Start” is different than how I normally sing. I’m normally singing in my full voice [and here] I’m very literally whispering in this light falsetto. I did that on purpose because I felt like the whole movie was up close, intimate, small, simple, and not trying to be ambitious or grand in a sense. It’s ambitious in its lack of ambition.

Why do you think a film like this is important for a time like right now?

There’s a lot of darkness out in the world right now and sometimes people are too pessimistic about [it]. In a lot of ways, the world is better than it ever was, and safer than it ever was. And people talk about Chicago and the crime here, but when you compare it historically, it’s actually safer to be alive now than it was in 1989. That being said, it’s nice to have entertainment and film that is light, that is about love, and that is about people coming together and the partnership and beauty of a couple finding each other.

I see that on your Twitter. How you’re outspoken, but also thoughtful. It’s very rare for people who have the sort of public platform that you do to be like that.

Obviously, sometimes I say some things that people don’t like. I feel like I use my Twitter to teach people and inspire discussion and to put out my point of view. If people disagree with me, that’s fine. But I really want to have a constructive dialog about a lot of things that are happening and I try to do that when I can.

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