Movies

Jennifer Hudson Talks Bumpy Road to Theaters For Aretha Franklin Biopic 'Respect': 'I'm Actually Quite Emotional'

RESPECT
Quantrell D. Colbert

(l-r.) Henry Riggs stars as Tommy Cogbill, Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin, Hailey Kilgore as Carolyn Franklin, Saycon Sengbloh as Erma Franklin, Alec Barnes as Jimmy Johnson, John Giorgio as Chips Moman, Marc Maron as Jerry Wexler and Joe Knezevich as Tom Dowd in 'RESPECT.'

It's fair to say that the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect has had a tumultuous journey to the big screen. And it's not even there quite yet. The movie -- starring Jennifer Hudson and the directorial debut of Tony Award-nominated Liesl Tommy -- was filmed in Atlanta last year and was due on screen during the fall of 2020.

With the pandemic closing movie theaters around the world it was bumped first to December, then to Jan. 15 to coincide with the Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration. When that proved unrealistic Respect moved to Aug. 11 and is now on tap for Aug. 13 -- presumably a go with theaters once again open and capacity limits increasing as localities lift restrictions following new CDC masking and social distancing guidelines.

So Hudson and Tommy were, not surprisingly, in high spirits while talking to reporters via Zoom on Tuesday (May 18) -- in preparation for Wednesday’s (May 19) unveiling of Respect's first official trailer. The clip gives the world its first glimpse of Hudson performing Queen of Soul classics such as "Respect" and "(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman," as well as a look at the cast that also includes Forest Whitaker as her father C.F. Franklin, Marlon Wayans as ex-husband Ted White, Saycon Sengbloh and Hailey Kilgore as sisters Erma and Carolyn Franklin, respectively, Mary J. Blige as Dinah Washington, Skye Dakota as a young Franklin and Marc Maron as producer Jerry Wexler -- whose cinematic reference to Franklin as a "chick" would likely have inspired the Queen to sock it to him in real life.

The world has seen quite a bit of Franklin this year with National Geographic's Genius: Aretha miniseries and a prominent placement in Apple TV+'s 1971: The Year Music Changed Everything. But there's no doubt Respect will be making its case as the last word on the Franklin legacy. Here's some of what we learned about the film during the session with Hudson and Tommy.

It's ready for its close-up, baby...

"I'm actually quite emotional, after the Covid of it all, to finally be able to share this film with the public," said Tommy, who's moved on to an adaption of Trevor Noah's memoir Born a Crime. “It’s been years, now, of love and effort poured into it." Both she and Hudson agreed that holding off until "Respect" could be seen on big screens was the right move.

"What better way to go back to the theaters than through the Queen of Soul?" Hudson asked. "We can all come together. Your children love her. Your mom loves her, your grandparents... Take the family. It's something we've all been waiting for, including myself, not only to share with the world but for everyone to see. It's a perfect film and a perfect way to get back to the theater."

Tommy added that, "I made the film to be seen on the big screen. I want to show our lavish locations. Our costumes are lush and we labored over the design of the sound... It all had to live up to Ms. Franklin; She embodied excellence and taste, so our movie has to live in that same place. I think there's something glorious about her journey, and... I need a little glory in my life right now, after Covid...I feel people will be healed by this movie."

Hudson was indeed coronated By The Queen...

Hudson recalled being tapped by Franklin herself for the role, from as far back as her Academy Award-winning appearance in 2006's Dreamgirls. "We met in New York and had a talk about it," Hudson said. "There was no script at all. She wanted to meet with me." They stayed in touch, and while Hudson was on Broadway in a revival of The Color Purple, "(Franklin) called me and said, 'I've made my decision, and I won't you to play me' -- but don't you tell a soul!' 'Yes ma'am, I won't."

For Hudson, portraying Franklin was "natural," from their mutual roots in the church to Franklin's influence on Hudson as a singer. "I sit back and think about how much of a blueprint she's been in my life and my career, as well as so many others," Hudson noted. "A part of that lived in me portraying her. It wasn't until being in the thick of things I even got to understand her that much more for myself, as a person -- not necessarily 'Omigod, that's Aretha Franklin the icon' or The Voice or this or that song, but to able to learn of the individual while developing the character."

Hudson learned to play piano as part of the role...

"And I'm still learning to play piano!" she declared. "Let me say, you ain't just gonna wake up one day and think you're gonna be Aretha. Do not be fooled! I said, 'Aretha send me back to music school. I'm in Aretha music school.' I still get on the piano every day... I've got a bit further. I will never be on Ms. Franklin’s level, let me make that clear."

As for singing, Hudson went with a hybrid of Franklin's style and her own. "It's like a balance; I feel it's more of her influence on me in it, and my interpretation of it rather than trying to mimic Aretha. There's only one Aretha. It focused me; 'OK, am I supposed to sing this as me, Jennifer, or am I supposed to sing it like Aretha?' How about let it be the influence of her through me and how she's helped shape my artistry throughout the years."

Respect tries to do right by the woman...

Tommy explained that tapping into the person behind the icon was part of her "take" to the studio when she was first approached about directing Respect. "When I dove into the things that we don't know about her, what came to me is that this should be a story of a young woman with the greatest voice in the world fighting to find her own voice, because she was a brilliant musician but she had to go on a journey to become that brilliant musician we knew," said Tommy, who directed from a script by Tracey Scott Wilson.

"That journey is a journey to self. That to me felt like the most profound investigation into her legacy," she said. "Whenever Jennifer and I would talk about (Franklin, that's what resonated for both of us, the complexity and the depth of who she was, and that's who we wanted to bring to the screen. I hope that people feel that depth of who she is as a person."

Tommy brought some of her musical theater background to Respect, too...

"I love musicals," she said. "I love music. Music to me is one of the most powerful forms of storytelling. I didn't want this to be like some other biopics where the music pieces are moments of music and then we move on. To me (Franklin's) stories and the way she sang... is so emotional. Where we placed song in the script was to use song as storytelling devices... The emotional moments are clarified and opened up by the particular songs in the particular moments... (That's) as important as dialogue. So we definitely structured it with that in mind."

Black lives matter in Respect...

Tommy said it's significant and necessary that Franklin's story is being told by black filmmakers, screenwriters and others involved in the film."I felt strongly that we have been at the mercy of the white male gaze telling us who we are for a very long time," the director explained. "(Franklin) knew who she was, and she always loved black people. I felt like this movie was going to be about that as well. It was going to be a movie where you can see all shapes, colors, dimensions and nuance of this black woman -- not just somebody strong, somebody sassy, all the things we've been told that's the only part of us that's interesting. She can be fragile. She can be scared. She can be unsure AND she can be strong and she can be powerful and she can be intimidating. But she is a human being, a woman who had so much to her. That was the part I was interested in."

Hudson held a part on the throne, too...

Respect marks the singer/actress' first role as executive producer in a studio film, which gave her an even greater investment in the end product. "This is something that's very personal and very dear to me," she said. "I just wanted to make sure I was a part of it as much as I could be in every way possible, any way I can led myself and be a help, to be able to tell her story that much more or to support it in any way, not just vocally or acting-wise. I just wanted to be involved in any way possible, and this is the perfect way, I think."

 "Royalty" aside, all concerned checked their egos at the door...

"It was a family environment," Hudson says. "Everybody, every single department put their heat into this project. That was the most beautiful part." Tommy added that, "Our set was a really fun, really loving place, 'cause we all wanted to do right by her. Jenny and I talked about this early on -- there's gonna be no divas on set except for the ghost of Aretha Franklin."

Courtesy Photo

Check out the new Respect trailer below.