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As Aretha Franklin biopic arrives, cast and filmmakers say 'Respect' came with sense of duty

Early in the making of “Respect,” director Liesl Tommy had an edict for the movie’s actors and crew.

“There will be only one diva on this movie,” she told them. “And that will be Aretha Franklin.”

From star Jennifer Hudson on down, those involved with the long-in-the-works biopic said that sense of reverence and responsibility for the Queen of Soul’s legacy coursed throughout the project, which hits theaters Friday.

The MGM film, with Broadway veteran Tommy making her film directorial debut, is the culmination of an effort set in motion years ago by Franklin herself. It’s the most significant Detroit-related music film since Eminem’s “8 Mile” in 2002.

In a powerhouse performance that’s already generating Oscar buzz, Hudson channels the spirit and soul of Franklin for a story chronicling 20 years of the singer’s life.

“Respect” picks up in 1952 Detroit, with 9-year-old Aretha — played by precocious Skye Dakota Turner — summoned from bed by her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, to show off her singing talents for a party of VIP guests.

More: Jennifer Hudson talks 'Respect' as Aretha movie arrives in theaters

Skye Dakota Turner stars as Young Aretha Franklin and Audra McDonald as her mother Barbara in RESPECT, A Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film

From a turbulent childhood that includes a rape, young Aretha’s resulting pregnancy and the death of her mother, the 2½-hour biopic jumps to Franklin’s late teens and 20s as she battles for her own creative, political and personal autonomy. As the filmmakers have frequently described it, “Respect” is the story of a woman with the greatest vocal gift in the world seeking to find her own voice.

“This is the origin story of a superhero,” said producer Scott Bernstein.

The film’s tension comes as Franklin wrestles for her own power among the strong men in her sphere, including her famous preacher father (in a deft performance by Forest Whitaker) and her tempestuous husband-manager, Ted White. Franklin’s mother — played by Audra McDonald, one of the real Queen of Soul’s early considerations for the lead role — is a tender but sturdy guide: “Your daddy doesn’t own your voice,” she tells her gifted daughter.

More:Jennifer Hudson tours Detroit, joins Franklin family for ‘Respect' screening

More: The story behind Aretha Franklin’s long quest for a biopic

Saycon Sengbloh (Erma Franklin) and Hailey Kilgore (Carolyn Franklin) play Aretha’s tightly bonded sisters, Mary J. Blige is a memorable Dinah Washington, and Marc Maron is a feisty but tuned-in Jerry Wexler, the Atlantic Records producer who offered Franklin creative leeway as she blossomed into the Queen of Soul.

Like others involved with the project, Bernstein said he lamented only that Franklin wasn’t here to witness the film’s completion. She died in 2018, just after MGM committed and Hudson was locked in to star.

A quest for authenticity

Set largely in Detroit, New York and Los Angeles, “Respect” was primarily shot in Atlanta, wrapping just before the pandemic hit. (Bernstein said Michigan “absolutely” would have been a location contender if the state still offered tax incentives for filmmakers.)

With a few hundred extras dressed in period attire and some post-production magic, the 700-seat auditorium at the Infinite Energy Center outside Atlanta was transformed into assorted venues for concert scenes, including New York's Madison Square Garden and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw.

Guided by blueprints of the C.L. Franklin family home on La Salle Street, filmmakers outfitted an Atlanta house with a new façade — including a front porch — for outdoor shots, while re-creating the Detroit home’s interior on a soundstage.

Sabrina Owens, daughter of Aretha Franklin’s sister Erma, said they nailed it — down to C.L. Franklin’s study with its windowed French doors and leather-bound books.

The shoot also included a re-creation of Detroit’s Hastings Street in the mid-‘60s, along with Franklin’s New York apartment and Los Angeles ranch home. Production designer Ina Mayhew said her research left her surprised by the Queen of Soul’s lavishness: “Everything around her was big and expensive.”

One hurdle came with the original New Bethel Baptist Church, where young Franklin cut her gospel teeth. Few photos of the chapel exist, and other source materials were tough to pin down.

“We wanted to get her life right, but we had to take some educated guesses,” Mayhew said.

Screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson — who took up the “Respect” script after initial work by Callie Khouri (“Thelma & Louise”) — said her team built an online research repository with hundreds of Franklin interviews and videos.

Wilson, trying not to to make “cartoon villains” out of Franklin’s antagonists, said she revisited a host of music biopics — even the parody movie “Walk Hard” — to avoid lapsing into cliché.

To accurately nail down dialogue for the story's era, she hit Google’s NGram application, which tracks word usage over time.

While many of Franklin’s biggest hits are featured onscreen — “Respect,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “Think” — filmmakers say they weren’t out to make a jukebox musical, forcing in songs in for the sake of it. Indeed, Hudson says she viewed the musical numbers as additional lines in the script.

Director Tommy, frustrated with biopics that give short shrift to the creative process, said some of her favorite “Respect” scenes are the ones that capture artistic invention in flight: There’s Franklin and the Muscle Shoals musicians finding their way to the right groove on “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).” Or the singer and her sisters late at night, gathered around a piano in their pajamas, working up their version of the Otis Redding song that became Franklin’s biggest hit and the movie’s namesake.

“Respect” portrays a young singer who sometimes coped with stress by blocking it out — going mute for weeks as a 9-year-old after her mother’s death, for instance, or numbing herself with alcohol in her 20s. But the movie’s Aretha also has her go-to comfort zones, reliable places of solace when life is off the rails: her music, her faith, Detroit.

Liberation is the film’s prevailing theme, whether Franklin’s artistic journey or the broader civil rights struggle that serves as a backdrop. “Freedom! Freedom!” C.L. Franklin hollers from the pulpit in an early scene — foreshadowing the soaring refrain of Aretha’s “Think.”

Keeping 'the soul in everything'

From a singing perspective, Hudson said she wasn’t out to do an Aretha impression, but rather sought to channel the late singer’s feel.

“It was more about paying homage because she’s influenced everyone musically and beyond,” she said. “I’m an artist, so for me, it was about allowing the influence she’s had on me to come through while using certain nuances from her style that are specific to her and familiar to us.”

Working with dialect coach Thom Jones, Hudson uncovered features in Franklin’s technique that required adjustments to her own singing: The Queen of Soul shaped her mouth upward when approaching a note, for instance, and she sang from the top of her head.

What Franklin and Chicago-born Hudson did have in common were their gospel roots. More than anything, Hudson said, “it was very important to me to maintain the soul in everything.”

As a lifelong Franklin fan, she also had to block out her familiarity with the songs. Hudson cited a tricky scene in which Aretha’s sister Carolyn guides her through the new composition “Ain’t No Way.”

“I’m not Jennifer right now,” Hudson said she told herself. “I’m playing Aretha in character. And in her life in this moment, she’s learning the song. So Jennifer has to unlearn the song and approach it in a way where we’re not getting ahead of ourselves.”

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Tommy says her Broadway experience gave her a clarity of vision as she embarked on “Respect” — including her insistence on live singing during the shoot.

“That was going to bring a power to the performances on film that you could never capture in a studio,” she said. “And I was right. Every single person who sings in this movie did it live on set, and that's what we're using in the film — from Audra McDonald to the little girl to Jennifer to Tituss Burgess (as the Rev. James Cleveland). Everybody is in there at their most fully realized, powerful voice.”

For all the confidence in her approach, Tommy said she felt “enormous pressure” taking on the towering story of Franklin, whom she never met.

Clint Ramos, Jennifer Hudson in one of his desgins for "Respect," and Liesl Tommy, the director and co-writer of the Aretha Franklin biopic, on the set.

“There was so much where I just had to trust my instincts, trust my research, trust the conversations that I had with people about her,” Tommy said. “But there is a point as a filmmaker where you kind of have to set everything aside and just commune with the spirit of the person — just channel that and go with your gut.”

With cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau, the director also set forth a distinct aesthetic feel as “Respect” moved through time: The ‘50s would have a “buttoned-up formality” as Franklin grew up in the shadow of her powerful father. The ‘60s, as she blossomed into independence, would feel fast and vibrant. And for the early ‘70s — as Franklin found sobriety and celebrated her church roots with “Amazing Grace” — a sense of calm would take over.

In March 2020, Tommy and her team were one week into editing when the pandemic hit, and they retreated to their own apartments in New York and New Jersey. With the frequent blare of sirens outside, they continued to work, collaborating in real time via Zoom.

Coupled with the early anxiety of the pandemic, the isolated process proved extremely challenging, Tommy said. But immersing in the film also served as peace and escape.

“In a way, it was like the hardest thing ever I've ever done,” the director said. “But it also saved me, because I had a purpose.”

'Sniffling and crying'

Unlike the National Geographic series “Genius: Aretha,” which aired in the spring, “Respect” has gotten a resounding endorsement from Franklin’s heirs.

When family members were treated to a private screening in late July, “all you could hear was sniffling and crying,” reported Owens, Franklin’s niece.

Others with warm reactions have included the Queen of Soul’s youngest son, Kecalf Franklin, who has publicly raved about Hudson’s performance. His daughters, meeting with Hudson last week, excitedly told the actress how uncannily she had captured their grandmother’s mannerisms and movements. 

 Aretha Franklin's son Kecalf Franklin, center, poses with his children (from left) Victorie, Jordan, Grace and and their mother Koffee at the unveiling of Aretha Franklin's handprints cast in concrete in the Legends Plaza at the Detroit Historical Museum on Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021. Jennifer Hudson also attended the unveiling and the opening of Detroit Historical Museum's exhibit titled "Respect," featuring 1960s-style costumes and accessories from the film along with Franklin artifacts from the museum's own collection.

Owens and Brenda Corbett, Franklin’s cousin and onetime backup singer, spent several days on the Atlanta set in 2020, often watching from the producer’s perch.

“I think (Aretha) would have loved it. She would have been thrilled. Because Jennifer was off the hook,” said Corbett. “In some of the scenes, I could almost see Aretha. I couldn’t stop crying and thinking about her and being happy for her because she deserved that.”

Bernstein said his sensitivity to the family grew out his lengthy talks with Franklin about the film. The lesson had also been driven home after his work on “Straight Outta Compton,” the 2015 N.W.A. biopic, he said.

“It was important to Ms. Franklin,” he said. “We don’t want to steal someone’s life — we want to portray their life. We made a really conscious effort to make sure (family members) were heard.”

In his conversations with Franklin, Bernstein said she opened up about her troubled marriage to White, her battles with alcohol and her eventual sobriety in 1970 — the last providing a galvanizing moment late in the film.

Franklin also asked that White’s physical abuse not be portrayed onscreen, Bernstein said.

The end credits in “Respect” honor another vow Bernstein made to Franklin, who was suffering with a pancreatic tumor: She wanted to perform for the cameras, filming a song to close the film.

She died before that could happen, but moviegoers will see the solution devised by filmmakers.

Aretha Franklin dances on stage during the first annual march on cancer in Sept. 1998 in Washington.  

“Respect,” originally scheduled to arrive in fall 2020, was first postponed to January before settling on the August release.

The COVID-19-prompted delays were initially frustrating, Hudson said. But the "Respect" team was determined that it get a proper theatrical release — a big-screen, big-sound experience befitting its larger-than-life subject.

"Aretha was an artist who brought people together in her life, and this (movie) will lead you to come together to celebrate her life," Hudson said. "What better way to celebrate her? She's still bringing us all together."

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