The one thing Jennifer Hudson didn’t do like Aretha? Smoke cigarettes.
The ‘American Idol’ alum sings Franklin’s classics live in the film, “Respect,” which co-stars Forrest Whitaker, Audra McDonald, Mary J. Blige and Marlon Wayans
Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Hudson expertly embodies many aspects of the young Aretha Franklin in “Respect,” but she drew the line when it came to smoking cigarettes in director’s Liesl Tommy’s highly anticipated big-screen biopic about music’s fabled Queen of Soul.
“Wow. You are the first person to notice that,” said 2004 “American Idol” finalist Hudson, who was hand-chosen by Franklin in 2007 for the starring role in the long-incubating “Respect.”
“I have never smoked,” the 39-year-old actress and vocal star added for emphasis.
Considering how thoroughly the film captures Franklin’s first 30 years — from her domineering father and abusive first husband to her challenging rise to stardom, her drinking and even her many hairstyles — it may surprise some that the iconic singer’s fondness for tobacco is virtually nowhere to be seen in “Respect.”
The 145-minute cinematic valentine to the towering vocal legend co-stars Forrest Whitaker as Franklin’s father, Audra McDonald as her ill-fated mother, Mary J. Blige as vocal great Dinah Washington and Marlon Wayans as Franklin’s often violent husband. Many of the major and minor characters alike in “Respect” are shown smoking, as was common in American life the 1960s, but not the film’s star.
“There were a couple of scenes where Jennifer held a cigarette, but they didn’t end up in the movie,” said “Respect” director Liesl Tommy, speaking from San Francisco.
Music came first
For Hudson, the decision was a simple matter of pragmatism. The music came first.
“It was a necessary choice not to smoke, so that I could perform the songs. Because I was singing live, in real time, when we filmed,” she recalled, speaking in a separate interview from Atlanta last week.
“So, it was like: ‘I can’t smoke cigarettes and sing. Which one is it going to be? Am I singing the songs or smoking cigarettes?’ ”
Director Tommy laughed when told of Hudson’s explanation.
“Why would we make Jennifer smoke a whole bunch of cigarettes when we needed her to sing with a clear voice?” asked Tommy, whose film features Hudson performing “Respect,” “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)” and other Franklin classics in their entirety.
“It was a conscious effort,” Hudson said. “The base and heart of Aretha was her music, and we wanted to fit in as much as we could.”
Tommy agreed, adding: “A lot of music biopics never get enough of the songs. I knew the intensity of Aretha’s performances and that the emotional specificity she brought to her songs had to be captured live. In Jennifer, I had an incredible performer who has the vocal ability to sing live all day.”
Indeed, the smoke-free Hudson repeatedly lights up the screen in “Respect,” which chronicles Franklin’s slow rise from a pre-teen gospel music singing sensation to international pop stardom. The music and the woman behind it are the twin focal points, and the film lovingly focuses a good amount of its running time on the art and craft of singing.
Yet, some of the most powerful scenes in “Respect” are either wordless or almost wordless.
Aretha Franklin, the towering American singing legend, did not perform in San Diego often.
That is especially fitting for capturing the essence of Franklin, who died in August 2018 at the age of 76 and often expressed herself more eloquently through her deeply felt singing than in conversation. Accordingly, in some scenes Hudson conveys Franklin’s intricate tapestry of emotions largely through oh-so-subtle changes of facial expression.
“As an actor, that was one of the biggest challenges,” the Chicago native said. “Because Aretha, if you had a chance to meet her, she wasn’t very verbally expressive. She was a minimalist, even with her expressions.
“So how, as an actor, was I going to handle those expressions and then tell the story without words? It was an interesting journey to gain insight, and it took me having to live in the moment and respond in the moment as I played her.”
Capturing those expressions on film was a treat for Tommy, who in 2010 directed the La Jolla Playhouse’s production of Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Ruined.”
“One of the great joys of filmmaking for me is the way I get to use the camera, after so many years in theater,” said the South African-born Tommy, who grew up in an activist family during the horrific apartheid era. One of her next projects is a film adaptation of late-night TV host Trevor Noah’s memoir, “Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood.”
“With the camera, I’m able to use close-ups and really create intimacy,” Tommy continued.
“With actors, I love silences. I was interested, as a filmmaker, in creating size and epic musical moments, but also in delicacy and exploring that side of Aretha. Because the research and all the firsthand accounts I got told me she was extremely shy as a young girl and well into her 20s.”
Triumph and tragedy
Hudson won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2007 for her role as Effie White in “Dreamgirls.” Her temperamental character was based on Florence White, one of the founding members of Motown vocal favorites The Supremes. In “Respect,” Hudson stands (and sings) front and center, in a role she was seemingly born to play.
Like Franklin, she has seen triumph and tragedy in her life, persevering through soul-sapping adversity that includes the 2008 Chicago murder of her mother and brother.
And, like Franklin, she grew up singing in church — where she performed Franklin’s version of soul-stirring gospel classics. (Ironically, Hudson was too young at the time to realize she was singing the arrangements Franklin had immortalized on the 1972 live album, “Amazing Grace,” which remains the best-selling album of her career and the best-selling gospel album by any artist.)
“Aretha is definitely an example of persistence and of a true survivor. But a lot of those parallels didn’t register with me until we started filming, and then I was like: ‘Oh, wow!’ ” Hudson recalled.
“The bigger than life human part of her was that she just prevailed and had that determination to own her voice. It wasn’t until Aretha owned her voice that we got the Queen of Soul. That’s the take-away for me — what if we all did that? What treasure would we find in ourselves?”
The Detroit-born Franklin was clearly impressed with what Hudson could deliver as an actress and as a singer who — like “Respect” director Tommy — cites Franklin as a key inspiration on her life.
In 2007, soon after Hudson had won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “Dreamgirls,” Franklin phoned her to say she wanted Hudson to play her in the movie that eventually became “Respect.” It was an exciting and daunting invitation.
“When we first met, Aretha said: ‘How are you going to portray me?’ ” Hudson recalled.
“And I said: ‘How would you like to be portrayed?’ Of course, it was my dream to play her. Our first meeting was nearly 15 years ago, and there was no script yet, so there wasn’t much for me to elaborate on.”
One of the most crucial aspects of Franklin’s music was her formidable talent as a pianist whose keyboard work was essential to her singing, and vice-versa. Her ability to do both so well, even though she mostly focused on her vocals in concert, should not be underestimated.
“I was on tour with Miles Davis, and we had a gig to play at a theater in Los Angeles in 1965,” Herbie Hancock told the Union-Tribune. “And the opening act was the Aretha Franklin Jazz Trio. She was this young artist and she played sort of funky jazz piano with an upright bassist and a drummer. Then she sang, and she blew the roof off the place. The rest is history. I’d rate her up there with Zeus.”
As part of her quest to capture Franklin as fully as possible on screen, Hudson learned to play piano.
“That was a huge element of Aretha that should be acknowledged,” she explained, “and I thought it was my duty to as an actor to learn as much as I could about the piano. That was the first thing I started with because it was so foreign to me. I could sing the songs and learn the lines in the script and work on my character, but the piano took work!
“I still do it; I still work on it now. Aretha’s in a class of her own. What artist do we know that was not only the greatest voice ever, but just as great as a musician and a songwriter? All of those elements, all in one, is what made her the Queen of Soul.”
Franklin was the daughter of one of the most prominent Black ministers in the nation. She grew up in an affluent family whose home was regularly visited by civil rights pioneer Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., gospel vocal dynamo Clara Ward, blind jazz piano giant Art Tatum and other luminaries.
For Hudson, part of the challenge was to perform Franklin’s classic songs while injecting some of her own musical personality into them. It was a formidable balancing act to do justice to both, while performing all of the music live, in real time, in front of the cameras.
“Aretha has had one of the biggest impacts on nearly every singer and I was definitely one of them.” Hudson said. “So, how about we let that influence come through me, using her signatures and her nuances of how she would sing and the way she approached it, things like that, vs. trying to imitate her?
“And then I had Tom Jones as a (vocal) coach. It was: ‘Let’s see how our instruments were built. Okay, they are built differently, but can do the same things.’ It was tricky because I was acting as well. So when (my) emotions kicked in, I decided I needed to cut through them. Because I had a double job: I was singing the songs and also telling the story.”
In an unhurried manner, “Respect” depicts Franklin’s trajectory to stardom as one of most celebrated and influential singers in music history. It also captures what the country was like at a time when Jim Crow segregation laws still prevailed in Southern states and Black people — even very famous ones — spoke out at their own peril against racial and social injustices.
“It was like an immersion in history,” Hudson said.
“There were a lot of things I learned about Aretha, including her business acumen and her determination to make it (big) and how close she was to Dr. King. And I didn’t know she had made eight albums (for Columbia Records as a jazz singer) before her big hit (for Atlantic Records), ‘I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).’ Legends like Aretha had to work towards becoming who they are and she had her process.”
In a 2005 Union-Tribune interview, Franklin acknowledged that her career was stalled, commercially if not artistically, during her years with Columbia.
“I don’t think they did know what to do with me,” Franklin said in the interview. “But what they did do is establish an audience for me among some very important people, and that audience included Leonard Feather, who was the jazz critic at the time. I was fortunate enough at the time to get the No. 1 position in Downbeat, Playboy and a number of other magazine music polls.”
Yet, while music is at the core of “Respect,” the film also provides context about Franklin’s personal life and the on- and off-stage realities women faced before and after she became famous.
“I never knew or imagined Aretha and Dr. King were like family,” Hudson said. “And it was huge for me to learn what the conditions were like and how women existed at that time — how they were perceived and expected to behave — which is completely different than now.
“Aretha made a blueprint on our lives and, by the time I arrived, she was an ever-present part of our culture. She still is.”
When: Opens today
Where: Wide release
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
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