, New York Times
Jennifer Hudson had plenty of time to think about how to portray Aretha Franklin onscreen. In 2007, soon after Hudson won the Academy Award for best-supporting actress — for playing a girl-group singer in “Dreamgirls” — Franklin told Hudson she should play her in a biopic, starting a decade-long friendship filled with weekly conversations.
Like Franklin, Hudson grew up singing in church, and she has poured gospel virtuosity into pop songs. And like Franklin, whose mother died at 34 of a heart attack, Hudson experienced sudden, devastating loss: her mother, brother and nephew were murdered in Chicago in 2008. In her career, Hudson has repeatedly paid tribute to Franklin, from using a Franklin song for her “American Idol” audition in 2004 to singing “Amazing Grace” at Franklin’s funeral in 2018. Now, Hudson is playing Franklin in the biopic “Respect” that comes to theaters this week.
“Every artist, every musician, you’ve got to cross paths with Aretha, especially if you want to be great,” Hudson said in a video interview from Chicago, where she lives; her gray cat, Macavity, prowled in the background. “She’s always been present in my life in some form, even when I didn’t know it.”
As Hudson explained the choices that went into her performance, she said that through the movie, she came to understand just how much of a “blueprint” Franklin was. “Our church music was based solely on her. The ‘Amazing Grace’ that I grew up singing in church came from her ‘Amazing Grace’ album. I didn’t realize that until we were doing research on the film.”
Hudson, 39, is both the star and an executive producer of “Respect.” The film chronicles Franklin’s life from her childhood — as a vocal prodigy singing in church alongside her father, the eminent Reverend Clarence L. Franklin — through her pregnancy at 12, her frustrating years singing jazz standards at Columbia Records, her triumphant emergence as the Queen of Soul at Atlantic Records, and the pressures and drinking that threatened all she had achieved. Its story concludes in 1972 with Franklin reclaiming her church heritage to record her landmark live gospel album, “Amazing Grace.”
“Respect” is the first film directed by Liesl Tommy, who was born in South Africa under apartheid and has worked extensively in theater, directing reconceptualized classics and politically charged new plays like “Eclipsed,” about women during the civil war in Liberia. (She was nominated for a best director Tony for that production.) To write the screenplay for “Respect,” Tommy brought in the playwright Tracey Scott Wilson, whose grandfather was a preacher.
“When I pitched my idea of the film,” Tommy said by telephone from Los Angeles, “it was that it should start in the church and end in the church. The theme of the film was the woman with the greatest voice on earth, struggling to find her voice. I wanted to know how a person sings with such emotional intensity.
“A lot of people have brilliant voices,” she continued, “but she’s the only one who delivers songs the way she does. I don’t think you become the Queen of Soul if you have an easy ride. There was a lived experience that allowed her to sing like that.”
Franklin was celebrated anew after her death in 2018. The long-shelved concert film made when she recorded the “Amazing Grace” album was finally released that year. And National Geographic devoted a full season of its television series “Genius” to Franklin, with Cynthia Erivo in the title role. “Aretha Franklin lived a life where there’s room for many, many versions of many stories about her,” Tommy said. “She deserves that.”
“Respect” juxtaposes the personal and political currents of Franklin’s career: forging a feminist anthem with “Respect” while grappling with an abusive husband, appearing regularly with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. while supporting controversial figures like the Black Power activist Angela Davis. One of the rawest scenes involves Franklin singing at King’s funeral. “Imagine being Aretha Franklin in that era and Dr. King, whom she was so close to, being assassinated,” Hudson said. “Imagine the suffering and the pain she was going through. But in her position, she still had to be that person to be the light in such a dark time. That’s hard.”
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