John Legend Produces, Pens Tune for ‘Southside With You’


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—Having earned multiple awards for his music, including an Academy Award for his song “Glory,” which is featured in the civil rights film “Selma,” John Legend has expanded his horizons to filmmaking and TV production. Through his Get Lifted Film Co., he is developing and producing projects with social significance.

He serves as an executive producer and wrote a ballad called “Start” expressly for “Southside With You,” a romantic drama about the beginning of Barack and Michelle Obama’s courtship.

Set in 1989, the film is written and directed by Richard Tanne and recalls the summer day in Chicago that a young intern at a law firm convinced his adviser at the firm to accompany him to a community meeting in a working class neighborhood. The young man was Barack Obama and the woman he was courting was Michelle Robinson, a rising star at the firm, who wasn’t initially keen on the idea of dating a co-worker.

Over the course of the day, the colleagues became friends, discussing their hopes and dreams not only for themselves but also about what they wanted to do to help others. After picking up his date in a battered Honda, Obama takes her to an art exhibit and then to the meeting, where she can see that he is beloved already for his work as an organizer in the community. After he delivers an impromptu and inspiring speech that hints at his later leadership and oratory skills, he takes Michelle out for ice cream and melts her heart.

Legend and his wife, model Chrissy Teigen, welcomed their daughter, Luna, into the world earlier this year.

The music artist and producer has chatted with the President and First Lady several times over the years. He says he is pleased to be part of the independent production that recounts their love story. The film stars rising star Parker Sawyers as Barack Obama and Tika Sumpter (the “Ride Along” movies, OWN’s “The Haves and Have Nots”) as Michelle Robinson, and was filmed on location in Chicago’s Southside.

Q: Although President Obama is in his eighth year of office, and yet this is the first feature film about the President. What do you think of being the first out of the blocks with an intimate portrait of the President and First Lady?

Legend: There will be a lot of Obama art created by and inspired by his life and Presidency. If you were going to do a sweeping biopic about these two amazing people, you’d need a little more distance and perspective from his Presidency but there actually is quite a bit of distance between their first date and now. There’s plenty of perspective about what they’ve become. It was brilliant of Richard (Tanne, the director) to come up with the idea of just focusing on this one moment in time at the beginning of the relationship. Now that we’ve seen what they’ve become, we can see how that started out.

Q: Can you talk about creating the music for this film?

Legend: I’m not going to take all the credit for the music because we have a great team and a great music supervisor (Stephen James Taylor) and our director who knew what kind of tone he wanted to set and was able to do that.

My job as a songwriter was to write a song that was in the spirit of the film that connected to their conversations and connected to who they were, what they were trying to do during the course of the film. I also listened to the tone of the film that Rich created and writing a song that matched that tone. And so my sense watching the rough cut of the film is that it was an intimate look at a very public couple. I wanted the song to feel intimate and close and I sang it in a way that is basically like a whisper. I don’t really sing live in that manner most of the time. I don’t sing in the studio in that manner most of the time. It’s kind of a specific expression of my voice that I don’t use a lot but the idea behind the way I wrote it and the way I sang was to create that sense of intimacy and vulnerability and uncertainty that we all feel on a first date. You don’t know where it’s going to go.

Basically, I was thinking about what the president was thinking about at the time, which is that he was trying to convince Michelle to give him a chance. She was looking at it like, “Let’s stay professional.” But he saw something special in her and I think, eventually, she saw something special in him. He basically was saying, like I say in the song, “I don’t know where this is going to go, but it won’t go anywhere unless we start,” and this movie is about the start.

Q: Has the First Couple seen it? Did they give you input?

Legend: They’re definitely aware that it exists. I spoke to the President about it when he was in Los Angeles for a fundraiser. I told him he should watch it and hopefully he will. (He laughs.) It’s on offer now and he knows it exists and we’re happy if he and Michelle will watch it anytime.

Q: What’s your impression of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama?

Legend: I’ve been around both (the President and the First Lady) quite a bit. They are so cool. We are so fortunate to have two people who are so brilliant, so authentic, so honest and full of integrity and who have true love for each other. They’ve created this beautiful partnership together as the representative couple of America. They represent us to the world. I think we should be proud that they do that and that they do it so well to the world.

What’s so cool about them to me is that with all this power and grandeur that surrounds that office, they are still really down to earth. They are still really in touch with the people and still so relatable. That comes from the fact that they know where they come from. They know where they met. And that he was an organizer in the community before he became the President. I don’t think he’s ever forgotten that in terms of who he is, and she’s never forgotten that she’s from the Southside. They still carry that with them everywhere they go. I think that gives them perspective.

Quincy Jones once told me that you know when somebody’s cool when they’re the same person no matter where they are, whether they’re in the White House or hanging out with their friends, or wherever they are, they’re authentic. That’s what I think about the President and the First Lady.

Q: What about Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter’s portrayals of the President and First Lady?

Legend: I knew Tika before this. I didn’t know Parker. Just watching the film, I forgot it was them. I got into the zone and felt I was watching Barack and Michelle. That’s why I feel they did such a marvelous job because you really forget it’s not them. They really nailed it.

Q: What’s next for you?

Legend: Our company, Get Lifted Film Co., is working with Tika on a TV project. We have “Underground” which is on WGN America and quite a few other films and shows in development right now and we’re excited about that.

As an artist, I have a new (his fifth) album that will be coming out this fall. That’s exciting too but we’ll talk about that later.