Hudson pays respect to music idol

The pressure of portraying Franklin was not lost on Jennifer Hudson. Picture: Getty Images
The pressure of portraying Franklin was not lost on Jennifer Hudson. Picture: Getty Images

Jennifer Hudson knew she had her work cut out for her when she agreed to play the Queen of Soul. "You just can't wake up one morning and decide 'I'm gonna be Aretha Franklin'," Hudson says. "I mean, her voice. Her legacy. The songs. Who she is to all of us. It was daunting. There were times when I was like, 'Jennifer, what have you done?'"

The answer is Respect, the highly anticipated biopic sanctioned by Franklin, who handpicked Hudson for the role before her death in 2018. The film chronicles the late singer's rise from her father's church choir to international stardom, shining a light on the talent and the stories behind the songs.

"Respect is the song and the hit we all love from the gifted Aretha Franklin," Hudson says. "But when you add her life narrative around it, it's that much more powerful. Understanding the era she grew up in and the courage that she had and her activism. Her relationship with Dr. King and Angela Davis. It's like, wow, you see all sides of the human and the way she used her art to reflect herself and support others and be an advocate. So now it's more than just the song. It's more than just the artist. Knowing her history helped me understand her legacy and understand why her impact has been so great."

The film, which hits theaters next week after decades of planning and a year of Covid-related release delays, moves from Franklin's religious upbringing with the charismatic but controlling Reverend C.L. Franklin to her hard-won stardom of the 1960s to a spiritual return to gospel music with her highest-selling album ever, 1972's Amazing Grace.

Rather than lip sync to pre-recorded tracks, Hudson belted out The Queen's material live on set during filming (Aint No Way, Chain of Fools, Think) as did the rest of the cast - which includes Tony award winner Audra McDonald portraying young Aretha's mother and Broadway talents Hailey Kilgore and Saycon Sengbloh playing her sisters Carolyn and Erma Franklin (the women's harmonising alone is worth the price of admission).

But Hudson is a singular force. The former American Idol contestant, who like Franklin grew up singing in church, emotes with the same passion that won her an Oscar for 2006's Dreamgirls, using her powerhouse vocals to re-create iconic moments in music history including the birth of Aretha's own sound in Muscle Shoals' Fame studio and a knock-'em-dead performance of the film's namesake at Madison Square Garden. With Hudson and other music-minded folks on board, Respect is the rare biopic where the celebrated artist's compositions also land a starring role.

"I wanted to make a movie where music was front and center," said director Liesl Tommy. Known for her work on Broadway, including her Tony-nominated direction of the play Eclipsed, Respect marks Tommy's first time directing a feature film. "Aretha was capable of so much power when she sings and so much delicacy and nuance. I wanted the way that we feel listening to her music to be the way that we felt watching the film. Another thing that guided me is that she has so much emotion in her singing. I felt that the film should be emotional too because that's who she was. And even though she was very protective of her private life, her private life is all over her music."

The pressure of portraying her was not lost on Hudson. "I was calm on set. The freakout came later," said Hudson recently while in Los Angeles to promote the film. She arrived to the interview wearing a necklace that spelled out "R.E.S.P.E.C.T" in gold letters. She had it made as a memento of the film because "it's not every day you get to be the Queen of Soul," she said, slipping on pink, fuzzy slippers after shedding a pair of deadly high stilettos she donned for a photo shoot.

Hudson worked with acting and dialect coaches for the role, and she turned to the legendary Patti LaBelle for insight into the experience of black female artists in the 1960s. "They had a lot less freedom and women took up less space" says Hudson. "Ms Franklin spoke up with her music."

Hudson took her job seriously, learning to play piano for the role. Slipping into fabulous reproductions of Aretha's wardrobe was easier, though Hudson counted 83 costume changes and 11 different wigs (the beehive was her favorite). "And I loved her clothes in the birthday scene. She's wearing a gold dress and a big fur. I couldn't help but feel royal."

Hudson grew up in 1980s Chicago worshipping Whitney Houston, but by the time she auditioned for American Idol, her song of choice was Franklin's version of Share Your Love With Me. Even the jaded Simon Cowell was impressed (still, she lost the competition in 2004 when she came in seventh). But Hudson's personal associations with Franklin's catalogue had its disadvantages when she was prepping for the film. "Playing her is a completely different thing from being a singer and fan who sings her songs," said Hudson.