“The way [Aretha] carried herself, it didn’t matter what she had on, she just felt like royalty. And I believe that came through her confidence and I think that’s something all women should strive to have.”
“Aretha had a presence like no other. It was always so regal and royal. A very mellow and strong presence, but very quiet, in a way.”
Handpicked by the legend herself to portray her in her biopic, Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Hudson plays Franklin in Liesl Tommy’ ‘Respect’. She’s been praised for her stirring performance.
The two-time Grammy award-winning singer skyrocketed to fame in 2004 as a finalist on the third season of American Idol, placing seventh spills on her moments with her as well as experience portraying Franklin.
“I miss hearing from her. Aretha had a presence like no other. It was always so regal and royal. A very mellow and strong presence, but very quiet, in a way.
“And so, I pulled from that, even while developing the character. And she’s funny as well. She was always so present. She would tell me what was going on in my life, and I’d be like, ‘How you know that?!’”
Directed by Liesl Tommy, the film follows the remarkable rise of the music icon’s journey to find her voice. It tells Aretha Franklin’s career rise– from a child singing in her father’s church choir to international superstardom
Not just one of the most influential figures in world music, although she warmed hearts through her smash hits like Respect, (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman, and I Say A Little Prayer, her active activism further endeared her to the spotlight, earning respect. Through her songs which became anthems of the civil rights movement, she spoke against racism, social justice, equality, and women’s rights.
Franklin a forever fan of Franklin performed her song Share Your Love With Me in her audition for American Idol.
Sir Tom Jones who she previously starred alongside as a judge on the ITV singing contest The Voice UK helped in voice training.
“We studied her instrument and my instrument, and we discovered that our instruments are built differently, but they can lend to the same things,” recalls Hudson.
“Her approach, like the place she sings from, she sings from the top of her head, he was saying. I said, ‘Where do I sing from?’ He was like, ‘Well, you sing from your feet’. I’d never thought about it, how I sing.”
Various elements of Franklin’s technique were employed “that is so familiar to us all, when we listen to her records, to help tell the story and to create my Aretha”.
And while it was “a singer’s dream” to be selected for the project, she certainly felt a huge amount of pressure while filming.
“It’s like, ‘Oh wow, Jesus, what am I supposed to do with this?’ How do you approach something so huge, of the magnitude that it is? And being a fan, I’m aware of that, which is what made it an even more personal project to me.”
“Because we think of her as such a powerful classic diva, I was interested in showing how she became that way,” the filmmaker says
“And when I found out that she had almost a crippling shyness as a child, I was like, ‘How do we get from that to what we understand about her now?’ So that was what was the driving force of me focusing it on her childhood and her 20s.”
Tommy for sure knew Franklin was happy with the casting, however, whether Franklin would approve of the film, spilling on some of the darker aspects of her life, the filmmaker isn’t quite sure.
‘She was certainly an extremely reserved woman when it came to her private life, so there were definitely times when I thought, ‘Oh God, would she kill me? Would she literally scratch my eyes out if she saw what I was putting in this film?
Liesl Tommy on Aretha Franklin
“I never met her, I never spoke with her about it, I really took a lot of initiative,” she notes.
“I pitched my idea of this film to the studio, and they brought me on to execute that vision. And I felt that, in order to understand her, we had to dip into some of the darker parts of her life, her childhood.
“She was certainly an extremely reserved woman when it came to her private life, so there were definitely times when I thought, ‘Oh God, would she kill me? Would she literally scratch my eyes out if she saw what I was putting in this film?’
“But at the same time, I felt that there were so many of her songs where she had that ache. In addition to the great joy and triumph of some of her songs, there was also this beautiful, vulnerable ache, and I felt like part of my job was just to show all aspects of how she manifested her life in her music, in the film.”
Franklin as a young woman encountered a lot of trauma; by the age of just 14, she had given birth to two children. Respect delves dip into her relationship with her first husband Ted White, who also worked as her manager, their union featured scenes of domestic violence. But while wanting to be truthful to Franklin’s lived experience, Tommy was careful about what was depicted.
“I definitely feel like as a woman, as a woman filmmaker, the female gaze was very present for me because I am tired of seeing women being brutalized on screen, on television, and in film. We’ve seen it so many times.
“So, for me, less important was the punch than the emotional fallout of the abuse. And so, every single step of the way, I was thinking, ‘How can I tell the story of these darker things without brutalising and dehumanising our lead, as well as brutalising the audience?’
“I feel like we’ve all seen too much, and I just wanted to stay focused on her emotional journey and not make it about somebody being beaten to a pulp. That’s just not what I wanted for the film. Those images will live forever, and it was important to me, in that way, to protect us and her.”
“I do hope that we can have more conversations about what we’re doing to women’s bodies, and also to black people’s bodies. The violence that we can carelessly and casually show is really something worth examining.”
Respect hits cinemas from Friday, September 1