Actors will love Liesl Tommy’s Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect.” Thirteen years after the Queen of Soul first approached Jennifer Hudson, who had just won her “Dreamgirls” Oscar, with the idea of playing her in a movie, “Respect” wrapped filming in February 2020, one month before lockdown. MGM decided to push back the movie from December 2020 to August 13, 2021, to give it a chance to play in theaters. (August has proven to be a successful launchpad for awards contenders, including “The Help,” “The Butler,” and “BlacKkKlansman.”)
Judging from the way “Respect” played Saturday night at the Bruin Theatre in Westwood to (masked and vaccinated) members of the Screen Actors Guild nominating committee, the studio made the right choice to favor an exclusive theatrical release. Broadway director Tommy has mounted a solid crowdpleaser, written by Tracey Scott Wilson, that will satisfy generations of Franklin fans. And ageless 39-year-old singer-actress Hudson, who plays Franklin from her teens through her acclaimed 1972 gospel concert “Amazing Grace,” is on her way to a second Oscar nomination.
Also in the running for an award for playing Franklin is Emmy-nominated Cynthia Erivo, star of NatGeo’s 2021 series “Genius: Aretha.” Both women boast extraordinary voices with range comparable to Franklin. With support from the estate, Hudson got to sing the title song, “Respect” and other greatest hits like “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman,” while Erivo dug into a range of songs over Franklin’s 60-year career.
After the screening, Hudson soaked up a rousing standing ovation before a live onstage Q&A with three of her fellow cast members: six-time Tony-winner Audra McDonald (Franklin’s pianist-singer mother Barbara), longtime church choir singer Tituss Burgess (Franklin’s teacher-mentor Reverend Dr. James Cleveland), and Marlon Wayans (husband-manager Ted White). Notably missing was Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”), who anchors the movie as Franklin’s father, the powerful, controlling womanizer-preacher C.L. Franklin, as well as Mary J. Blige, who delivers a memorable cameo as Dinah Washington.
Reviews will break later on. Here are some highlights of the Q&A:
Hudson officially got the blessing from Franklin to play her in a film eight years ago, before there was a script. “I’m grateful for the timing of things,” she said, “because I needed to be in a certain place and to have gone through what I experienced in life to be able to portray her at this moment in time…to play Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, is nothing you’re going to get used to. I’m still taking it in doses. Now I’m thinking, ‘What did I do? Was I OK?'”
Her castmates were impressed with her live singing, which she insisted on doing even when they were the ones on camera, and recognized how much prep she was putting in after-hours to be ready each day. (Hudson had 83 period costume and 11 wig changes.) Comedian Wayans, who played Shakespeare at the High School of Performing Arts before his rare dramatic role in “Requiem for a Dream,” looked after Hudson on set, making sure she was hydrated and fed. “He ordered, he picked up, he put it on the plate,” said Hudson, who considered it her job to be there for her co-stars.
“All those takes, she never asked for hot water and lemon,” said Burgess. “She was a machine.”
“Well, that’s how she did it in her life,” said Hudson. “I wanted to experience it as she did.”
Franklin thought McDonald’s voice resembled her mother’s operatic soprano. The Broadway star was proud, she said, to star in a movie about a Black woman, written and directed by, and starring, Black women. “Mahalia Jackson said Barbara had one of the best gospel voices in the country,” McDonald said. “For Aretha to have realized some of her mother’s spirit was important. She wanted her mom to be acknowledged in this film.”
Wayans credited Whitaker with bringing a level of intensity to their scenes that forced him to step up, including whipping out a gun during one confrontation. “He’s going to provoke and incite. He improvised. He pulled out a gun, that wasn’t in the script. Every time he pulled that gun out we went, ‘Ooohhh!'”
The level of Franklin’s political activism in support of not only her friend Dr. Martin Luther King but activist and scholar Angela Davis (whom she bailed out of jail) was a surprise to the cast. Hudson was inspired by how Franklin coped with the suffering in her life. When she performed at Dr. King’s funeral, she said: “As a Black woman, and so close to Dr. King, having to get up there and lift everyone up? Think about the pain she was going through. Too often people forget icons and legends are humans too… She rose above it and became the Queen of Soul… She knew the purpose of her calling.”
“Respect” falls right in the Academy sweet spot for musical biopics like “Ray” (Jamie Foxx won Best Actor as Ray Charles), “Lady Sings the Blues” (Diana Ross was nominated as Billie Holiday), “Walk the Line” (Reese Witherspoon won the Best Actress Oscar as June Carter, while Joaquin Phoenix was nominated for Best Actor as Johnny Cash), “La Vie en Rose” (Marion Cotillard won Best Actress as Edith Piaf), and “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Rami Malek won Best Actor as Freddy Mercury). Crafts and an Original Song (co-written by Hudson and Carole King) are also possibilities.
Hudson will not be denied, and in all likelihood, neither will Whitaker.