What becomes a legend most? Cynthia Erivo and Jennifer Hudson both tackled the Goddess of Soul in rival projects delayed by the pandemic. British-born Oscar-nominated Erivo (“Harriet”) explores the singer in NatGeo’s third season of the “Genius” anthology, the expansive eight-part series “Genius: Aretha,” while Oscar-winner Hudson (“Dreamgirls”) was hand-picked by Franklin before she died in 2018 to star in an estate-blessed two-hour MGM/UA movie which finally hits theaters August 13.
All it will take for Erivo to attain EGOT status is an Oscar win, while Hudson needs a Tony and an Emmy. Both women boast extraordinary voices with range comparable to Franklin, and sang most of their songs live, but had to brush up their on-camera piano playing (backed up by pros on the soundtrack) to take on the famed gospel singer-turned-global music star. 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. “It was beautiful being able to discover some of the lesser-known songs,” said Erivo from her home in Los Angeles, “and to get to know the gamut of songs she originated. It was very cool.”
Both writer Suzan-Lori Parks and director Anthony Hemingway’s “Genius: Aretha” and writer Tracey Scott Wilson and Broadway director Liesl Tommy’s “Respect” chart the long and winding road to Franklin discovering her voice. They show how she shed the control of the men in her life, most especially her charismatic, womanizing, preacher father, C.L. Franklin, played by Courtney B. Vance and Forest Whitaker, respectively. “This is a heavy life to portray and I wanted to honor that,” Hudson said in a featurette shown at last week’s The Big Screen Is Back event.
While “Respect” is yet to be screened and reviewed, Emmy contender Erivo has been hailed for her portrayal of Franklin in “Genius: Aretha,” which she landed after producers Clive Davis and Brian Grazer saw video of Erivo singing Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way” on the Tonys red carpet in 2019.
Erivo had always sung Franklin songs in her concerts, and when she sang “To Dream the Impossible Dream” at the Kennedy Center Honors, Franklin told her, “You can really sing.” Franklin also came backstage during her Tony-winning Broadway run in “The Color Purple” and sang back a line from her signature song “I’m Here.”
The series was a demanding shoot. Eight one-hour episodes were filmed over one year in Atlanta from November 2019 to March 2020, when the production shut down after filming five and a half episodes. During the pandemic Erivo recorded ADR lines from her home office, and then resumed filming on October 1 for another month for a delayed March 21, 2021 premiere.
The filming required a disciplined daily regimen, Erivo said, who worked out daily to stay in top form: “It’s how physical I am. I was doing things every day, making sure I was moving physically, conditioning my body to keep going through grueling hours, especially toward the end. The pandemic shutdowns truncated our time. At one point we shot 13 days in a row for 12-14 hour days, which was harrowing, but we made it.”
To be able to seamlessly perform all the Franklin songs — which are not easy to sing — Erivo scheduled daily morning rehearsals with her vocal coach to learn and prepare each number before she hit the set. They broke down every one in minute detail, she said, “and we’d work through it bit by bit to figure out [Aretha’s] choices on these songs. It would be an everyday thing, learning something new, studying the music.”
Erivo would practice the songs every chance she got, getting ready in the morning, in the car, in the dressing room, and before bed. “I had to, before I’d go into doing them,” she said, “so I had muscle memory. The last thing I needed to be thinking about was how to do it.”
Because she sang most of the songs live while shooting, from “Amazing Grace” to aria “Nessun Dorma,” she’d have to perform them a few times. “We’d do a few takes, trying to go back and back,” she said, “until we get it right. Some days when I don’t have it, I have to work harder to get it. For [Aretha] it was easy. I have my voice, but it’s one thing singing like me and another to sing like her. There’s a balance between myself and her. I feel close to her and who she was. Getting up the notes wasn’t scary; it was about making sure the quality felt similar.”
While singing live is more challenging to technically execute, it was important to Erivo. “It’s selfishly helpful to do it live for me,” she said, “because you can’t emulate something you experience live. It’s being in the moment when you sing it live. Then people around you get the genuine experience, listening to something for real in situ. It’s doing something for me and everyone in the room.”
“Genius: Aretha” was also a challenge for Erivo to act, especially the complex father-daughter relationship. “Everything she was, was complicated,” she said, “whether it was her father and the business and the people around her. She was pushed around so much, that she had to find a way to hold back the power that was often taken from her. She felt like a puppet for everyone for a long time, until she found her way and found her voice and decided what to do from a place of bravery. She wanted control over things, she had a lack of trust in the people around her.”
The series took the time to explore some of the darker details of Franklin’s life, including how, as a pubescent child on the road with her touring preacher father, she became pregnant at age 12, and again at age 14. “We had to be able see her experience as a child having to raise children,” Erivo said. “I’m glad we didn’t shy away from that. It’s a testament to who she was to be able to continue on and be the Aretha Franklin we know and love.”
Franklin’s father pushed her into being who she became, and while she tried to establish her own identity separate from him, he was always pulling her back to him. “In her father’s death, covering how she dealt with that,” Erivo said, “you see how they communicated with each other, or not. During the ‘Amazing Grace’ concert, there’s a blankness that happens when her father enters the room, the shine leaves her and then comes back when she sings. Shortly after that he’s shot and lying in a coma for five years. She’s afraid to let go. It’s very complicated, unlike any relationship you have ever seen, they’re both dependent on each other. Yes, it’s a weird love that they had, a real love. She was Daddy’s girl and was petrified when he was dying and devastated when he died.”
Erivo understood this dynamic. “I have a complicated relationship with my father,” she said. “I haven’t spoken to him since I was 16, it speaks to the long-term relationships fathers and daughters have. As we dive into what that was, it was important to show all sides of it. It wasn’t bright all the time, and there were times when it was definitely was not, but in the end she was still his daughter.”
As far as Erivo is concerned, Franklin’s father “saw something in her, he really did,” she said. “Honestly, without C.J. Franklin we would not have Aretha Franklin. He wanted the rest of the world to see something and eventually she would have to find her own way without him.”
Of course looking like Aretha was fun for creative fashionista Erivo, who followed the makeup and fashion, embracing the ’60s black eyebrow and frosted lips and one-toned foundation through the many changes over the decades, from elaborate wigs, gowns, and jewelry down to her fingernails.
Charting Franklin’s search for her voice fascinated Erivo. “She was doing a lot of jazz in the early ’60s,” she said, “a lot of Black artist songbird stuff, leaning into Judy Garland, which was the popular music of the time in her mind, but it wasn’t her at all.”
The pivotal moment is when Franklin chooses to sing Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Going to Come.” Erivo’s live delivery of that song gives chills, because she shows Franklin discovering her own voice as well as her political conscience. “It’s a statement,” Erivo said. “It’s the hope and wish for where we are now, which is worse than where we will be. It’s going to be a better place. We have to start with something small, but we will get to some place of hope and life. That song doesn’t get old. It connected to Aretha because she was a young girl whose family didn’t come from very much but she found a way to work through it, not just in the movement but in her life. It was more than just being Black, for her it was being a Black woman. She found herself in the late ’60s, early ’70s in the Civil Rights movement. She found something that she didn’t find anywhere else. She found meaning, a reason to keep going, and found what she wanted to say. The music starts shifting and changing and she starts finding her feet.”
And Franklin forged a strong bond with Martin Luther King, Jr. (Ethan Henry) that might have become something more intimate if he hadn’t been killed. “I know they were really good friends and she was devastated when he died,” Erivo said. “I wonder what their friendship would have been like had he survived. She found in him what it means to have a huge duty placed on you.”
And in learning how to speak like Aretha, the British actress also had to learn the different ways a Black woman would articulate her words. “It was a combination of many things,” Erivo said. “She code-switches from person to person; when doing an interview it’s one type of accent, with her family, it’s the region in Detroit, which has all sorts of southern and northern influences combined. There’s a flippedness to it that I hadn’t had to do before, which was fascinating. She becomes different as she gets older.”
Next up: Erivo’s debut album, recorded during the pandemic, is coming, along with a series of new films including “Needle in the Timestack” and the role of the Blue Fairy in Disney’s live-action “Pinocchio.” One of the most pleasurable parts of promoting the “Aretha” series for Erivo was singing Franklin songs live, including one Greek Theatre concert. “I was reminded how much I love doing these shows with an audience with people, there’s a different energy,” Erivo said, “how beautiful to sing live in front of people.” More concerts are coming, including one in July at the Hollywood Bowl.