In “Respect,” Jennifer Hudson Goes Beyond Singing and Into Aretha Franklin’s Extraordinary Life

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Franklin handpicked singer Jennifer Hudson to portray her in Respect. (Courtesy of United Artists)

Aretha Franklin. Joni Mitchell. Their voices could not be more different. But as I watched the credits roll for Respect, the new biopic about the Queen of Soul, lyrics from Mitchell’s “Both Sides, Now” (2000) wafted through my mind: “If you care, don’t let them know,” sings the Canadian musician, in a haunting orchestral re-arrangement of the tune she wrote and first recorded in the1960s. “Don’t give yourself away.”

Famously private, Franklin (1942–2018), handpicked singer Jennifer Hudson to portray her in the compelling, if at times, predictable (cue: cascading album covers) release by debut film director Liesl Tommy. In a recent CNN interview, Hudson, 39, reflected on a movie that, its flaws notwithstanding, underscores Franklin’s genius.  

“This is beyond singing and acting,” said Hudson, winner of the 2007 best supporting actress Academy Award for her role in Dreamgirls—and a sure bet to receive another Oscar nod for Respect. “I think [Franklin] saw something in me. … I would not have been able to go as deep as I did to tell the story in an honest way without my own life experiences.”

Then widely reported, in 2008, Hudson’s mother, brother and nephew were murdered by the estranged husband of her elder sister, Julia. In the wake of the tragedy, Hudson and her sister launched a foundation for disadvantaged children.  

Flashback: In March 1952, shortly before her tenth birthday, Franklin suffered the unexpected death of her mother (superbly portrayed by Audra McDonald in the biopic). In her role as young Aretha (both precocious and imperilled), Skye Dakota Turner makes clear that the loss left the future singer inconsolable. 

By age 15, Franklin had given birth to two sons whose patrilineage she never publicly discussed. In 1979, her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin (enter an enunciating Forest Whitaker) was shot during an attempted robbery. The celebrated minister remained comatose until his death in 1984.

A lifelong follower of both entertainment industry and everyday news, Franklin had undoubtedly tracked Hudson’s ascent with an empathetic heart and a discerning ear for the “flat-footed singing” hallowed by traditional Black congregations. Translation: Song drenched in the spirit.

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(Courtesy of United Artists)

On that note, consider Franklin’s delivery of Angel (1973), a lush ballad co-written by her sister Carolyn Franklin (1944–1988): “There’s no misery,” Franklin wails, her voice soaring to heavens. “Ooh, like the misery I feel in me. I gotta find me an angel, in my life.” 

Therein, I submit, lies the thread that unites the Queen of Soul and Jennifer Hudson. 

Franklin’s spectacular recording of the song (a #1 smash hit) also affirms the assertion that keyboardist Billy Preston (1946–2006) once made about the singer; an analysis that provides important context for the narrative that unfolds in Respect. Revered by his peers, Preston backed Franklin on multiple sessions, including her 1971 album Live at the Fillmore West (find grainy but still astonishing concert clips online).

“She can be hiding out in her house in Detroit for years,” Preston told the New Yorker. “She can cancel half her gigs and infuriate every producer and promoter in the country. She can sing all kinds of jive-ass songs that are beneath her. She can go into her diva act and turn off the world.”

He continued: “But on any given night, when that lady sits down at the piano and gets her body and soul all over some righteous song, she’ll scare the sh** out of you. And you’ll know—you’ll swear that she’s still the best f***in’ singer this f***ed-up country has ever produced.”

Indeed, having witnessed marquee musicians become “wrecked” by the power of her voice, Franklin warned band members about the dangers of sharing a stage with her.

“Aretha came to me once and held my hand,” noted bass guitarist Chuck Rainey, also in the New Yorker.  “She said, ‘Don’t listen to me too intensely. I know what I do to people.’”

Call it the undiluted truth from a singer who moved former president Barack Obama to tears during her tribute to Carole King at the 2015 Kennedy Center Awards. Adorned in a fur coat and accompanying herself on piano, Franklin serenaded the awestruck composer with “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” which King had co-written, in 1967, specifically for her.

In "Respect", Jennifer Hudson Goes Beyond Singing and Acting, Stepping Into Aretha Franklin's Extraordinary Life
Aretha Franklin sings “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee'” at the U.S. Capitol during the 56th presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2009. (Wikimedia Commons)

More proof? Peep footage of the cherubic Black boy (an angel?) who emerged from a Philadelphia audience and embraced Franklin as she sang the final notes of “Nessun Dorma” for Pope Francis, also in 2015. Visibly stunned, the Queen of Soul finished the demanding Puccini aria and then leaned down and hugged the child who mouthed the words: “I love you.”

This, in the aftermath of Franklin’s legendary performance of the piece at the 1998 Grammy Awards. Substituting (on short notice) for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti, the singer left a galaxy of stars in the house (including “no slouch herself” Celine Dion), slack-jawed.

As for stars, in 2010, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) named asteroid 249516 Aretha in celebration of the singer’s stellar achievements. It continues to travel in space. 

Set against the backdrop of Franklin’s extraordinary life, Respect was hard-pressed to deliver a wholly satisfactory portrait of her 76 years on planet earth. Instead, the film offers viewers an effective primer on the singer’s gospel roots, rise to fame,  fraught romances, revolutionary fervor and fierce determination to parlay her God-given talents into a dazzling recording career that spanned six decades.

Think about it: Franklin outlived many singers that she idolized, among them Dinah Washington and Sam Cooke, who both suffered tragic deaths at the respective ages of 39 and 33. Her stirring renditions of their hits “This Bitter Earth” and “You Send Me” honor their legacy. Both artists are referenced in Respect, with Mary J. Blige serving serious face as Washington.

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(Courtesy of United Artists)

In his role as Franklin’s abusive first husband, Ted White (no relation to this writer), Marlon Wayans shines in one of the film’s teeniest but telling moments. Standing off-stage as the Queen of Soul (meaning Hudson) sings “Think,” (which Aretha Franklin wrote), the actor’s face collapses when she trains her gaze on him and screams “Freedom” (in perfect key).

Then there’s the dim shot of young Aretha in profile, her Black doll on a nearby counter, as she drinks a glass of milk. The camera pans in to reveal that the preteen is pregnant. In an instant, the shadowy image gives voice to the impenetrable (“don’t let them know”) silences that marked the singer’s entire life.

Of course, the film takes its title from the Queen of Soul’s signature song, written and first recorded, in 1965, by Otis Redding.  But it was Franklin’s rousing 1967 rendition with its R-E-S-P-E-C-T spelling lesson and rapid-fire “sock it to me” background licks that topped the charts and emerged as an anthem for the civil rights and feminist movements.

Franklin’s revamping of the tune with her sisters Carolyn and Erma (played by Hailey Kilgore and Saycon Sengbloh) and the jump cut to their first performance of the hit stands as one of the most electrifying scenes in the movie.  

Three years after Franklin’s death, I’m also compelled to give propers to Queen Elizabeth II who, in a stunning shout-out, commanded her Royal Band of Welsh Guards to play “Respect”—outside of Buckingham Palace—on the day the Queen of Soul was laid to rest in Detroit.

Roll tape and watch in wonder.


In addition to the Aretha Franklin songs mentioned in my article, her string of celebrated 1960s hits, and her double platinum gospel album Amazing Grace (1972), here are a few other remarkable recordings by the Queen of Soul — several noted for their exquisitely arranged (usually by Franklin herself) backing vocals.  The 18-time Grammy Awards winner and the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame never lost her groove.

  1. The Day is Past and Gone (1958)
  2. The Long and Winding Road (1972)
  3. Somewhere (1973)
  4. With Pen In Hand (1974)
  5. Half a Love (1979)
  6. What a Fool Believes (1980)
  7. Every Girl (Wants My Guy) (1983)
  8. A Rose is Still A Rose (1998)
  9. Good News (2003)
  10. Rolling in the Deep (2014)

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About

A former reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, Evelyn C. White is the author of Alice Walker: A Life (2004). She lives in Nova Scotia.