Jennifer Hudson and Respect’s Liesl Tommy on ‘unlearning’ Aretha Franklin’s hits and honouring her activism

·7-min read
Jennifer Hudson with director Liesl Tommy  (Quantrell D. Colbert)
Jennifer Hudson with director Liesl Tommy (Quantrell D. Colbert)

Jennifer Hudson reckons the tale of how she went full circle from singing Aretha Franklin’s Share Your Love With Me in her first American Idol audition to being handpicked by the Queen of Soul herself to star in a Franklin biopic is “a story only God could write.”

The singer and actress, 39, first met with the legendary musician shortly after she’d won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her explosive performance in the screen adaptation of Dreamgirls, but it wasn’t until “eight years after our initial meeting,” that she received the all-important phone call. “It was when I was on Broadway [in The Colour Purple] and she called me herself - because Aretha loved to talk to people directly,” Hudson recalls. “And she said “I have made my decision, and it’s you who I want to play me, young lady.’ And I was like ‘Oh my god…’ Obviously it’s something you can’t take lightly and never get used to.” Her casting was announced at the start of 2018, a few months before Franklin died aged 76; Hudson would go on to perform Amazing Grace at the star’s funeral.

Franklin spent the best part of six decades in the spotlight, so Hudson’s first question was, “Okay, how do you portray something of that magnitude? [...] When I think of the magnitude and how broad her career was, and the legacy that she has left, it can get overwhelming.” Luckily, director Liesl Tommy had already clearly sketched out her vision for the film and its time frame.

Hudson was personally picked by Franklin to star in the film (Quantrell D. Colbert)
Hudson was personally picked by Franklin to star in the film (Quantrell D. Colbert)

Tommy is a Broadway veteran, but Respect marks her first feature film. “You don’t just put a film like this in the hands of anybody,” she says, “so I came in with a really strong pitch, [knowing] that the movie starts in childhood, it goes until 1971… the finale is Amazing Grace,” the album and concert film that Franklin recorded in a Los Angeles church, with backing from a gospel choir. “I said I didn’t want to make a birth to death biopic, because I think they can kind of flatten [their subjects] out, they can feel like you’re just trying to put everything in.”

Instead, she “wanted to make something that felt more intimate… where we watched [Franklin] cope with crises,” from her initial struggle to take ownership of her sound, to her relationships with her overbearing father (played by Forest Whitaker) and abusive first husband (Marlon Wayans). When it came to depicting those darker moments from Franklin’s life, Tommy took a restrained approach, choosing not to linger on images of domestic violence or sexual assault. “I knew that they needed to be in the film because I think it illuminates why she sang with such emotional intensity and the advocate that she became,” she says. “But at the same time, I do think as a woman filmmaker, the female gaze definitely played a part in my decisions about how to shoot those sequences. I personally feel that we have been saturated with images of violence, specifically images of violence against women and against black people… I chose to withhold more than I showed on purpose. I didn’t want to exploit the character that I’m trying to protect and I didn’t want to re-traumatise audiences.”

Hudson with Marlon Wayans, left, as Franklin’s first husband Ted White (Quantrell D. Colbert)
Hudson with Marlon Wayans, left, as Franklin’s first husband Ted White (Quantrell D. Colbert)

Already a “lifelong fan” of Franklin’s music (“I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know her music… I loved to belt out her songs when I was a little girl in my room - even though some of them, like Dr Feelgood, were not appropriate for seven year olds,” she laughs), Tommy “read every book, every article, every biography… watched every interview” in preparation. Once her name was linked to the film, “people kind of came out of the woodwork… somebody that I’ve known for a long time told me that they had been a back-up dancer of hers, and then had all these amazing stories of her time with her.”

Hudson, meanwhile, spent six months working with “the dialect coach Thom Jones, who helped me to develop my Aretha voice… and Leland Thompson, who was my acting coach, who helped me figure out how she existed, how she took up space, her mannerisms and characteristics.” Once it was time to start filming, Tommy notes, “she was so prepared that we could just be free and explore… because we didn’t have to worry about finding the Aretha Franklin character. We’d already found it.”

Franklin’s creative process takes centre stage in some of the film’s most memorable scenes. One shows her laying down her breakthrough hit (I Never Loved A Man) The Way That I Love You in a fraught session at Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama; another shows her sitting at the piano in the early hours of the morning, re-working Otis Redding track Respect on the piano, taking it apart sonically and adding in the iconic backing harmonies with her sisters. “I do sometimes feel about biopics that there isn’t enough music and there isn’t enough process being illuminated,” Tommy says. “Coming from theatre and having done musicals, I’ve been in the room with loads of musicians, I’ve been in the room when the groove is working, I’ve been in the room when it’s not working. So I know all of the kinds of ups and downs, the squabbles and the pettiness and the excitement that comes from actually making new music in the moment. So that was definitely a big part of how I shaped those rehearsal scenes, like in Muscle Shoals.”

For Hudson, this meant having to “unlearn” the songs she already knew so well, to imagine them as a work in progress. “Being a fan, who already is aware and knows her music really, really well — [I had] to kind of unlearn it at times, to be able to tell it from that perspective… In a lot of the scenes, she didn’t know the songs that she was singing. She was learning them. So I, as Jennifer, needed to approach it the same way, which was hard to do.” Much of the energy and authenticity of these moments stems from Tommy’s “believing in the power of live sung music,” as opposed to a pre-recorded soundtrack. “Every single song that anybody sang in the film was sung live on set,” the director notes. Recording live, Hudson says, helped her “pour it out - to be able to tell it with depth and vulnerability and from an honest place,” especially when filming scenes set at the memorial service for Martin Luther King Jr, who was a family friend of the Franklins.

Hudson with Forest Whitaker as C.L. Franklin (Quantrell D. Colbert)
Hudson with Forest Whitaker as C.L. Franklin (Quantrell D. Colbert)

Indeed, the singer’s civil rights work — which casual fans might be less familiar with — becomes an important narrative strand in Respect, from the moment the young Franklin watches an early speech from Dr King at her father’s church to when she publicly lends her support to Black Panther activist Angela Davis. “That is a huge part of who she was… and is just as important as what she’s given us musically — it’s a part of her legacy,” Hudson notes. “And it’s definitely something that people should be aware of.” Franklin, Tommy adds, “grew up in a family [where] their life’s work was advocacy, was civil rights. It started when she was really young. When she was a teenager, she was on tour with Martin Luther King and her father, inspiring people to go and march… She never stopped being an advocate, she never stopped being an activist. And I think that’s super inspiring.”

Respect is in cinemas from September 10

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