Jennifer Hudson Knew Aretha Franklin. To Play Her, She Had to Learn More.
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.”
Still, Hudson and Tommy were determined to place Franklin’s music at the center of the film. “Everybody is, like, ‘We’ve never seen a biopic with this much music, where you get to hear the songs,’” Hudson said. “This is not a musical. It’s a biopic about artists, musicians. But I can’t think of any biopic or musical that has been done this way.”
As executive producer, Hudson said, “I wanted to make sure the right songs were in the film. I wanted ‘Ain’t No Way.’ If I’m just an actor, I don’t really get a say, but with this, it’s like, ‘I’m sorry, but we can’t do this unless “Ain’t No Way” is a part of it.’”
In an extended recording-studio sequence, Aretha’s sisters, Carolyn and Erma Franklin, sing all the backup vocals — not Cissy Houston, whose wordless soprano counterpoint transfigures the song. “That is part of artistic license,” Tommy said. “You can only have so many characters. You have to keep it focused.”
To create immediacy, Hudson delivered Franklin’s onstage performances by singing live on camera — not lip-syncing, not dubbing in vocals afterward. “I wanted to experience it as she did in her life,” Hudson said. “Whatever we were re-enacting and recreating what she did in her life, if it was live, it’s like, ‘Well, let’s do it live.’ ‘Amazing Grace’ was live. ‘Ain’t No Way’ was live. ‘Natural Woman,’ we’re going to sing it live. So it could be authentic to what really was in her life.”
Franklin was an accomplished gospel pianist as well as a singer, skills forged in her childhood in the church. Her early, commercially unsuccessful albums for Columbia backed her with celebrated jazz musicians and elaborate orchestral arrangements. It was elegant but in the 1960s, it was already old-fashioned.
Her return to the piano was one catalyst for her indelible Atlantic hits, defining the groove with churchy foundations and building a visceral call-and-response between her fingers and her voice. Hudson, after a career of working solely as a singer, set out to learn piano. “It was an actor’s choice to say ‘I cannot play Aretha Franklin without learning some element of the piano,’” Hudson said. “And now, when I’m learning music, I no longer just look at the top line, the melody line, the singing line. I’m considering it as an arranger. What key is that in? What is the progression?”
Hudson also pondered how to reinterpret Franklin’s songs. Their voices are different: Hudson’s is higher and clearer, Franklin’s bluesier and grittier, and Hudson wanted to emulate Franklin without copying her. “I was using her approach, just allowing whatever that influence is that she’s had on me to come through, while using her inflections and different nuances,” Hudson said. “It was more about the feeling than matching the notes.”
Despite their years of conversations, Hudson still had to research Franklin. “Aretha wasn’t a person who verbalized too much unless it was through music,” she said. “I know from my experiences of being around her, I used to be like, I can’t really tell where I stand. She didn’t give you much.” So Hudson set out to understand the era in which she grew up and other circumstances to get a sense of what it was like to be a woman then. “It wasn’t for me until literally in the middle of scenes that I realized, the things she had been saying to me, she was speaking from experience. Her greatest expression was through her music — and that was real.”
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