Amazing Grace: Jennifer Hudson becomes Aretha Franklin in at-long-last biopic Respect
It came as less of a request, you could say, than a royal summons. Jennifer Hudson, then 25 and still spinning from a surreal year that saw her go from former American Idol contestant to Academy Award winner for her very first film role in the 2006 musical extravaganza Dreamgirls, received an invitation from a certain Queen of Soul.
"We met in New York, and one of the first things she said to me was 'You're gonna win another Oscar for playing me, right?' Imagine Aretha Franklin looking you in the face and saying that," Hudson, now 39, says with an improbably harmonious cackle. (Yes, even her laugh sounds like a melody.) "I was like, 'Eh, uh, eh… I can try.'"
It would take more than a decade, but with Franklin's blessing — though not, sadly, her presence; the singer lost her fight with pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer in 2018 at 76 — her handpicked successor will finally appear on screen this January in MGM's Respect, a portrait of the artist as a young woman helmed by award-winning theater director Liesl Tommy (Eclipsed) and featuring an EGOT-y monolith of costars including Forest Whitaker, Audra McDonald, and Mary J. Blige.
Reining in a life lived so largely and indelibly was one of Tommy's first tasks: "I sometimes feel when you're watching a cradle-to-grave biopic, whether it's a politician or a musician, it's too general for my personal storytelling taste," says the Cape Town native. "Because then you start to check things off a list instead of having them driven by an emotional journey. So I was interested in focusing on a finite period and really understanding how she became who she became."
Accordingly, the story begins in the late 1940s when Franklin was a child and concludes approximately around the time that she recorded 1972's Amazing Grace, the double-album opus that would become both her own biggest seller and the most successful live gospel recording of all time. But as Tommy and screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson began to dig in, they quickly realized just how little of the notoriously reticent star's life was truly known: the crippling shyness of her youth; the two babies she gave birth to before age 16; the private hardships and heartaches she poured into songs the whole world would sing along to.
"It's a part of Black American culture — if you're of a certain age, Aretha was in your house in some way, shape, or form. I don't remember my life without her voice," says Broadway veteran McDonald, 50, who portrays Franklin's mother, Barbara, a gifted singer in her own right felled by a heart attack when her daughter was just 10. "So I don't want to say I was surprised at what I learned, but in some ways it made sense because the depth to which she goes to the bottom of her soul, to the bottom of her toes when she sings, that has to come from someone who's known all of it — known joy, known sorrow, known absolute pain and grief."
For Hudson, whose own mother, brother, and young nephew were killed in a devastating 2008 shooting, there was a deeply personal resonance in that legacy of loss. She and Franklin would have weekly conversations in preparation for the film, and even though the older singer kept certain things close, "having to experience so much so soon, and then to have to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, that's a lot. I can understand that," Hudson says quietly. "I think she grew her shield, her wall, at a very early age, and the way she found to express herself was through her music. That was her outlet."
Though it was also a gift, she says, that didn't have to shout to be heard: "Aretha was a very subtle person. It wasn't a lot of big gestures, whereas I'm far more expressive…. She had this presence but also this stillness about her, so I would tell everybody on set, 'If you don't feel uncomfortable when I'm around, then I'm not giving you Aretha at all,'" she says, laughing. (Whatever the outer limits of Hudson's talents, she cannot play a little girl, so that task falls at the outset to 11-year-old Skye Dakota Turner — whom, in a sort of double-diva twist, Respect had to share with the Broadway musical Tina, where she was already appearing eight times a week as a young Tina Turner. "It was a long couple of months," the tiny, mighty-voiced actress admits with a giggle.)
For all that Franklin endured in her formative years, though, there's one origin-story touchstone you won't find here: the rags-to-riches rise. Her preacher father, C.L., Wilson says, "was basically the king of his time, hugely popular and influential, a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. So she grew up in this household where politics was as normal as singing." Accordingly, the movie's depiction of Aretha's childhood is filled with Black luminaries of the era; not only MLK, but names like Ella Fitzgerald, Sam Cooke, Dinah Washington (the latter portrayed vividly by Blige). And with the Holy Spirit, too: "Even the tones when C.L. was preaching, you would feel that in her 'What you want, baby I got it,'" Hudson says, her mezzo-soprano rising casually to meet the classic refrain. "It was always there, you know? Everything from 'Respect' to 'Natural Woman' to 'Never Loved a Man,' it always had that soul, that church, that gospel in it."
Still, Franklin's move toward secular music in the '60s was not without friction; a transition that proved especially fraught for the child of a famed minister who had made her voice a central component of his sermons since she was a little girl. "He took her out of school to go on tour when she was 11 years old. He truly believed that she was touched by something divine," says Whitaker, 59, who plays the famously charismatic reverend. "And he worked to cultivate that and was very protective of that for her. But unfortunately, sometimes it became smothering, Svengali-like.… And when that connection started to break, that was very difficult for him because he was losing control of the situation — particularly to a man that he didn't really respect."
That man was a local playboy and inveterate hustler named Ted White, who would go on to become Aretha's first husband, and their tempestuous romance forms a centerpiece of the film. "I didn't want to play a villain — just a bad guy, an abusive, cold-hearted person," says Marlon Wayans, 48, the comedy stalwart who portrays him in a rare dramatic turn. "I wanted to play a damaged man who loved a damaged woman. People, we fall madly in love, and we find ourselves tethered to toxic things. And so when she makes the choice to leave, I wanted it to be a hard choice."
For Hudson, the dominance of the men in Franklin's life — her brother Cecil was also her longtime manager — only made sense for the times: "Think about the place that women were in back then. They were probably treated like a child, no say-so of their own. So to be a woman like Aretha, to make your own way, to be the boss at a time like that is unheard of, you know? I always like to say what men can't conquer, they like to destroy," she says with a level gaze. "I've learned, and that's something else that Mama Franklin taught me." (Hudson split with her longtime fiancé, with whom she shares an 11-year-old son, in 2017; make of that what you will.)
"That's the hard part of being a family business, too, I think," she goes on. "You're no longer the daughter, you're the talent. And then you no longer have a father, you have a manager — or a husband, now that's your manager." Though Franklin's relationships with the women in her life could be equally complex — her sisters Erma and Carolyn served as her backup singers for years — they were loving, too; a cousin and a niece who were both close to her would become valuable resources on set. "They'd be like, 'That's exactly how Aretha would eat! That's exactly how she was.'" Hudson remembers. "I loved having people around that knew her, to give notes or give the okay or chime in."
The crew had only about 53 days to shoot in Atlanta and New York, which production designer Ina Mayhew transformed into 1950s Detroit, '60s Amsterdam, and beyond; production wrapped just two weeks before the COVID-19 lockdown. One thing Tommy wouldn't budge on: filming every performance live. "Anyone who has to sing in this movie can actually sing," she says, adding with a laugh, "That's why I cast Audra McDonald and Heather Headley [as gospel singer Clara Ward]…. Everybody has a Tony!" Hudson was more than on board with that approach. "When you prerecord," she explains, "you're married to that emotion, that delivery. But then in the scene it's like, 'Wait a minute, I'm crying here, where are the tears in the song?' I like the rawness, the honesty of being in the moment."
That often meant shooting in front of hundreds of extras — and outfitting them, too. "Ooh, child," Hudson leans back, brushing at the soft peony ruffles of the wrap dress she's slipped into after shooting. "We had so much fun with the clothes." Costume designer Clint Ramos (don't worry, he has a Tony too, for 2016's Eclipsed) estimates that he built upwards of 50 looks for her alone, including a column gown seeded with some 70 pounds of beadwork and pale pink pearls. Franklin, he says, "wasn't after the polish, she wasn't after conveying perfection. She was about showing soul.… But the first time Jennifer showed me her walk in a screen test, I fell out. She just had it down pat, that little shuffle that Aretha did."
More praise for the movie's headliner isn't hard to come by. "Her voice is a weapon," Wayans says admiringly. "She's so sweet, and then when she went on stage you just saw this lioness come out of nowhere…. I think she shattered my clavicle." Tommy is quick to point out, though, that the central performance goes far beyond vocal mastery. "I never felt like, 'Oh, I'm working with a singer who acts.' I felt like I was working with a woman who truly knew how to tell a story, whether she was speaking or singing or just standing there feeling something."
For Hudson, that emotional and technical investment — long hours spent studying dialect and movement, more than six months of intensive piano lessons — was the least she could do to honor the great responsibility she felt she'd been given. Asked about the upcoming National Geographic series Genius: Aretha, starring Cynthia Erivo, she takes a delicate pause, then chooses her words carefully: "I know that Aretha was adamant that [her life] be a film. If it's not a film, it's nothing. I'm just honored that she picked me to play her. I mean, who can say that? And again, I would have never done it without her wishes."
In many ways, it really is the role she's been preparing for all her life, even down to the song she chose for her Idol audition back in 2004, Franklin's bring-down-the-house ballad "Share Your Love With Me." If little gold men come again, she admits, she'll be thrilled; "more able to understand and appreciate it" this time around. But awards may be the least of the film's legacy for its star: "I miss hearing from her, because I feel like in teaching me about her life she taught me about life," Hudson says wistfully. "I still have the text chains, so every now and then I look back at them. The last time I spoke to her was Aug. 8, [2018,] and I can honestly say she sang until her last breath." Her almond eyes go wide, recalling how the singer teased and serenaded her with a few bars of an old Isley Brothers favorite over the phone just days before she passed. "I want to be like that. I want to be 80 years old and still doing what I love to do, you know? Sing my way home."
High Notes: Respect stars reflect on their favorite musical biopics
Jennifer Hudson (Aretha Franklin)
"I'd always say What's Love Got to Do With It and Ray, hands down. [But] Judy, I actually used that as a reference to prepare. I was like, 'Oh! Well, this is kind of what I'm getting ready to do,' so I remember going to see it during our rehearsals, and I loved it."
Forest Whitaker (C.L. Franklin)
'Round Midnight (1986)
"It's a jazz movie [loosely based on tenor sax player Lester Young and pianist Bud Powell]. I just remember it being an entrée into a universe where the actors were really living the characters, and there was something kind of profound about that."
Mary J. Blige (Dinah Washington)
"To be blind, to be that talented, that independent, and also be putting
a needle in your arm? There just were so many layers to that story that were incredible. And of course, What's Love Got to Do With It for so many reasons, just being a woman."
Marlon Wayans (Ted White)
Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
"As a child, I would watch my sisters watch that movie and the romance, how Billy Dee Williams cared for Diana Ross. My sisters used to well up with tears because we don't get to see a lot of that on screen, you know? Black love, healthy in that way."