How Jennifer Hudson and other ‘Respect’ creators captured Aretha Franklin’s transformation into soul queen
CLEVELAND, Ohio – The prospect of bringing Queen of Soul’s story to the big screen is formidable to say the least – and daunting in many ways.
But the folks behind “Respect,” Aretha Franklin’s licensed biopic which hits theaters Aug. 13, say the weight of the task never made them panic.
“I think people want something more emotionally dramatic from me, but the truth is… we were ready,” director Liesl Tommy said during virtual press conferences to promote the film. “It was such a big responsibility, and I cared so much about it, I just decided that there wouldn’t be a part of this movie that I couldn’t trust 100% and that I am for. prepared and in which I believe, because it was so important.
“So, yeah, it was an emotional roller coaster of getting it right. But we were ready.
Equally confident was Jennifer Hudson, handpicked by Franklin – who died in August 2018 at the age of 76 – to portray her in the nearly two-and-a-half-hour film.
“It was natural, and it was my dream too, to play her,” said Hudson, who won an Oscar for his 2006 screen debut in “Dreamgirls”. “It’s something that is very personal and very dear to me,” adds the former “American Idol” student, who sang at Franklin’s funeral and is one of the executive producers of “Respect”.
“I just wanted to make sure I was a part of it as much as possible, in any way I could, in any way I can lend myself and be a help so that I can tell her story a lot more or support her in any. way – not just vocally but acting wisely.
“This is just a real passion project for me and for everyone involved. “
The Franklin-Hudson connection dates back over a decade before “Respect” became a reality. Impressed by her “American Idol” performances, Franklin – the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – contacted the Chicago-born singer and even gave her the rare opportunity to open one of her concerts rather than the generally favored Franklin comedians. It started a relationship that Hudson still cherishes and, of course, was able to build on his portrayal.
“I knew what my responsibility was in telling her story,” admitted Hudson, who co-wrote the theme for the final title of “Respect,” “Here I Am (Singing My Way Home),” with Carole King and others. “Being blessed to be in her presence and in her life … helped me keep all of these elements of her in mind and be aware of the woman she was, the woman she was. and the icon that she was – and always will be.
“I had to keep all of these elements of her in mind and want to keep this context from my delivery as authentic as possible.”
Franklin had an idea that Hudson would portray her in a possible biopic, perhaps even before she told Hudson herself. Over time, Franklin would mention the idea of a movie biography and tease who would play without revealing a name. There was still some degree of secrecy even when Franklin issued the formal invitation on Hudson’s 2016 Broadway tour in “The Color Purple.”
“She called me up and said, ‘I’ve made up my mind, and I want you to play me – but don’t tell anyone!'” Hudson recalls, laughing. “I was like, ‘Yes, ma’am, I won’t,’ and the next day she went to talk to the press – but she didn’t give my name.”
Franklin’s call came amid discussions with producers Scott Bernstein and Harvey Mason Jr. (now head of the Recording Academy) as they wrapped up work on their 2015 NWA biopic “Straight Outta Compton”.
Franklin had received several movie offers before, but, according to Bernstein, “she never trusted anyone enough. She never wanted to tell the story because she knew she was going to have to talk about things she hadn’t talked about since 1968 ”, when a cover of Time magazine offered an uncomfortable and controversial take on life. Franklin’s personal. Over the course of 12 months of conversations, Bernstein and Mason were able to penetrate Franklin’s “very private” veneer and agree on a blueprint for how the story would be told.
“For us this story was going to start in church and end in church,” Bernstein said, and “Respect” actually spanned from 1952, when Franklin was 10, until the recording of his flagship album “Amazing Grace” in 1972 in Los Angeles. “The story I told was about a woman who grew up in a great faith, walked away from the faith and came back to it in the end, and it saved her life,” he recalls. “We took our time and within a few months she said, ‘Mr. Bernstein, I think that’s the story I want to tell.
It was a story that also wowed Tommy, making her feature film directorial debut after becoming the first woman of color to receive a Tony Award nomination for directing – in 2016, for the drama “Eclipsed.” The show was ironically playing on the same block as “The Color Purple” when Franklin offered Hudson the “Respect” part.
“I just knew this shouldn’t be a birth-to-death biopic – it had to be THAT,” Tommy said. “It should be a specific trip through a specific time in his life. It should be the story of a young woman with the greatest voice in the world struggling to find her own voice … a journey to become that brilliant musician we know.
“This, to me, sounded like the most in-depth investigation into his legacy. I thought this was where we could achieve privacy. This is how we could show how she became a superstar. I thought this would be the most relevant part of his journey – and the most inspiring. “
Bringing in Tracey Scott Wilson, another Franklin fan whose father and grandfather were Baptist ministers, was also essential in maintaining the authenticity of “Respect” for Tommy – giving the project “the magic thing of the black girl.” , according to actress Saycon Sengloh, who plays Erma, Franklin’s sister.
“Usually these movies are written and directed by white men, some of whom have never set foot in a church in their lives,” Tommy explained. “I felt strongly that we were at the mercy of the white male gaze telling us who we have been for a very long time. (Franklin) knew who she was. I just wanted the whole woman to be seen, understood and loved because that’s what she deserved.
Hudson was of course tied to the roots of Franklin’s Church – “That’s where I’m from too,” she noted – and she perfectly understood the challenge of playing her as the complex character Tommy portrayed. .
“It wasn’t until I got to the heart of things that I was able to understand it a lot more for myself, as a person – not necessarily” Omigod, that’s Aretha Franklin the icon “or The Voice or this or that song, but to be able to learn from the individual while developing the character, “said Hudson, whose class at” Aretha Music School “for the film included learning to play the piano. consulted Franklin’s friend and singer colleague Patti LaBelle “to help me understand what it was like to be a black woman in those days, what it was to be a celebrity, an artist, a mother”.
“(Franklin) would say to me, ‘OK now, I’m the queen of soul’, and I would say, ‘Yes ma’am. You have just pointed me in the right direction. If Mrs. Franklin says do something, you better do it – that’s the thing that got me through this.
Hudson’s understanding of what it meant to be the Queen of Soul was also strengthened by the time she spent with Franklin.
“It’s his heritage,” she explained. “It’s her sound, that’s why it was important not to imitate what she was doing but to pay homage to her. For me, that’s the premise of the story – it wasn’t until the Soul Queen possessed and found her treasure, her voice in her, that we got our Soul Queen.
“I think it was important to her, that the person she gave it to understood and respected that. And I do.”
“Respect” was filmed in and around Atlanta, with a heavyweight cast that includes Forest Whitaker as Reverend CL Franklin, Marlon Wayans as ex-husband Ted White, Hailey Kilgore as sisters Erma and Carolyn Franklin, respectively, Skye Dakota as Young Franklin, Marc Maron as longtime producer Jerry Wexler, and Mary J. Blige as Dinah Washington.
Recording sessions and concerts were recreated with careful attention to detail – family members and musicians who worked with Franklin were consulted – and a sense of mission was shared by all departments involved in the film.
“It was the best part,” said Hudson. There wasn’t a soul on this set that didn’t want to be there. It made him so warm. It was a family environment, and everyone, every department, put their hearts into this project.
Tommy added that “Our set was a really fun and really loving place because we all just wanted to do the right thing (Franklin).” It was all these amazingly beautiful actors, amazingly beautiful black people, bringing their A game, bathing this screen with the best they had to give. There were no divas on set, except for the ghost of Aretha Franklin.
The biggest test for the “Respect” team was waiting for the film to be released. Much post-production work has been done remotely due to the pandemic, which has also resulted in the film’s release being postponed no less than four times. The campaign, however, will continue through the fall and early winter film festivals and into Hollywood awards season. A new career-spanning box set, “Aretha”, has just been released, with the official soundtrack slated for August 13th.
“I’m actually quite emotional after the Covid to finally be able to share this movie with audiences,” said Tommy, who has switched to an adaptation of Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime” memoir. “I made the film to be seen on the big screen. I want to show off our lavish locations. Our costumes are lush, and we worked on the sound design …
“Everything had to be up to Mrs. Franklin; She embodied excellence and taste, so our film has to live in one place. I think there is something glorious about his journey, and. I need a little bit of fame in my life right now after Covid. I think people will be healed by this film.