Jennifer Hudson plays her idol Aretha Franklin in ‘Respect’
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Jennifer Hudson was fresh off her Oscar win for “Dreamgirls” when she was summoned to meet Aretha Franklin in 2007. The two singers had technically met before, when Hudson, freshly cut from American Idol, opened for Franklin at a show in Indiana. But this time was different: The Queen of Soul told Hudson that she wanted her to play her in a film.
It wasn’t a total surprise: Hudson had been briefed going in. And her admiration for Franklin was not a secret: Not only did she audition for Idol with Franklin’s “Share Your Love with Me,” she also said in interviews that she dreamed about playing her.
That meeting was just the beginning of what would be an almost 15-year journey to get “Respect” to the big screen. The film opens nationwide Friday.
A definitive Aretha Franklin-sanctioned biopic has been a long time coming, and Hudson’s wasn’t the only name floated over the decades. Halle Berry’s name came up, as did Audra McDonald’s. It would take another eight years for Hudson to even get a solid offer and, still, there was no script or director.
“Even when we started to film, I was like, wait, this is like really, really happening?” Hudson laughed in a recent interview.
The long gestation period ended up helping, though.
“I would not have been ready then,” Hudson said. “ I don’t know if I would’ve had the courage to do it or not and lived enough to be able to relate to the story, to tell it. I think I needed to live and have my life experiences to be able to do it.”
That included having a child of her own, honing her acting skills on Broadway and in more films, and surviving the horrific loss of her mother, brother and nephew, who were murdered. She also got to develop an actual relationship with Franklin, whom she spoke to almost weekly up until her death in August of 2018.
“Aretha is a very introverted person and her presence is always so royal,” Hudson said. “It took me a long time to simmer down.”
Their last conversation, Hudson recalled, was an “I hope you’re ready kind of moment” gearing up for the film. Franklin’s death was heartbreaking for Hudson, who performed at her funeral. But everyone involved in the project seemed to emerge from the loss with a renewed sense of purpose.
The producers at MGM invited South African director Liesl Tommy to pitch a take. Tommy had directed television and been nominated for a Tony Award for the Broadway show “Eclipsed,” but she had never directed a feature. She figured it was a long shot. But she did her homework and came with a clear vision: Her Franklin biopic would follow her journey to find her own voice, culminating in the recording of the 1972 gospel album “Amazing Grace.”
The producers loved it. Tommy enlisted playwright Tracey Scott Wilson to write the script and soon enough, cameras were rolling.
“Respect” traces Franklin’s life from age 10, as a preternaturally talented singer whom her father, pastor C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker, playing Hudson’s on-screen father for the third time), would trot out to perform for his party guests as well as at church, through age 29, when she was already a global icon.
The film offers a glimpse into her upper middle-class upbringing and enviable circle of family friends, which included everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to Dinah Washington (played by Mary J. Blige), the untimely death of her mother (portrayed by McDonald), the birth of two children before her 15th birthday, her turbulent marriage to Ted White (Marlon Wayans) and her career-changing collaboration with producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron) and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.
Filmmakers recreated everything in painstaking detail, with over 83 costume changes for Hudson, and even transformed a stadium in Atlanta into 1950s Madison Square Garden for the big “Respect” number.
“We were all so intensely nervous about shooting ‘Respect,’” Tommy said. “It was so much work. Every single department pushed themselves to the nth degree. There were hundreds of extras.”
It was, as one of the producers reminded her, “An expensive day.”
Then Hudson started singing.
“The background artists went crazy. Literally people were bursting into tears,” Tommy said. “That first take was perfect. It was so teed up. And once that happened we all breathed huge, emotional, teary sighs of release. And it was a joyful day after that.”
To give an authenticity to the production, Hudson sang live on camera for most of the film.
“I wanted to experience it as she did. Everything she experienced live was live,” Hudson said.
Although Hudson and Franklin’s triumphs and trials are different, Hudson was able to relate to her on a deep level.
“I wasn’t a preacher’s kid, but I grew up like a preacher’s kid. I was in church seven days a week,” she said. “It is my roots as well. I started singing as a baby on my grandmother’s knee.”
The whole experience of making the film has been surreal for Hudson, whose name is in the Oscar conversation again.
“She’s one of my ultimate idols. And to just meet your idol is a moment in a lifetime, right? So to meet her, and then to be able to pay tribute to her numerous times and then to have it to be my dream to want to play her and then to have her say, I want you to play me? Like that’s a lot to take in,” she said. “I’m still taking it in, you know?”
But ultimately, it’s about Franklin and “doing right” by the queen and her legacy that she entrusted to Hudson.
“I know we all have a respect for Miss Aretha Franklin, but by the time we get to the end of the film I’d like you to have a newfound respect,” Hudson said.