The Morning Journal (Lorain, OH)

Biopic includes Aretha’s input

- By Stuart Miller Special to MediaNews Group

Aretha Franklin spent decades pushing to get a big-screen biopic of her life made — she wanted something on the scale of “Ray” and she wanted a star like Halle Berry or Audra McDonald to play her before settling on Jennifer Hudson as the ideal choice in the years before her death in 2018.

Now that dream is finally coming true with “Respect” — Hudson is in the lead role.

Forest Whitaker is her domineerin­g father, preacher C.L. Franklin; Marlon Wayans her seductive but domineerin­g husband, Ted White; and Marc Maron legendary record producer Jerry Wexler.

“Respect” comes on the heels of the limited TV series “Genius,” which starred Cynthia Erivo as Franklin and had nearly four times the length to dive into Aretha Franklin’s story, but which didn’t have the theatrical life she craved.

The movie features numerous scenes of Aretha Franklin as not just a singer but a creative force in the studio; it also tracks her growth as a person as she breaks free from her father and husband and develops a political side as well.

Director Liesl Tommy and screenwrit­er Tracey Scott Wilson recently spoke about making the movie, their favorite Aretha Franklin songs and why they didn’t get into some of C.L. Franklin’s dark side.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


How did you get involved?

TOMMY >> I was approached by the studio and producer and I pitched this vision for the film — where it should start, where it should end and the music that should be included.

SCOTT WILSON >> Liesl wrote me a text asking, “Do you want to write the Aretha Franklin biopic?” I wrote back, “Are you kidding?”


Were you always Aretha fans?

SCOTT WILSON >> She was the soundtrack of my life. My grandmothe­r listened to all of her gospel stuff; my parents and siblings listened to everything else.

TOMMY >> I was a huge, profound Aretha Franklin fan. There was not a time in my childhood I didn’t know her music. I heard it in the womb.

I was a dramatic, emotional child and her music was dramatic and emotional. I could always go into my room, close the door and listen to her, knowing somebody out there understood me.


What’s your favorite lesser-known song of hers?

TOMMY >> My favorite song of hers is “Ain’t No Way.” It had resonance for Aretha because her sister wrote it for her. And I love the emotional intensity with which she sings it. I made a special request to put it in the film. Tracey found an incredible way to incorporat­e it. SCOTT WILSON >> One of my favorites is a song she sung while at Columbia, “Skylark.” Her version is really remarkable. My father and my brother loved jazz so I remember hearing it growing up, but it was only when I was working on the movie that I realized what she did vocally is really extraordin­ary. I listened to it a lot when I was writing.


You knew from the start you wanted to cover the years 1952, when her mother died, through 1972 and her gospel concert, But how did you decide what to put in or leave out in those years? TOMMY >> When I pitched it, I said the arc of the film was about a woman who had the greatest voice on earth but who didn’t know what her own voice was. So the journey was of a woman trying to find her own voice, and every single thing has to move inexorably toward the realizatio­n of that proposal.


Although her father clearly comes across as unbearably controllin­g, you leave out much of the worst of C.L. Franklin’s exploits. Why?

SCOTT WILSON >> At some point there was a lot of C.L. Franklin stuff and we cut it back so everything was from Aretha’s point of view. It’s not C.L.’s story or Ted’s story — we’re not telling the story about the jerks in her life. It’s about how she came through it. That helped us to pare it down.


How did your theater roots help you with this story?

TOMMY >> I’ve directed musicals and that definitely played a part in how I shot and cast the film. I wanted the music to function in a specific way.


How important was it to show her not just singing but as a creative genius too?

TOMMY >> Sometimes I watch biopics and I’m dissatisfi­ed with how the music is portrayed — they just dip in and dip out. And you don’t always see the creative process. I felt strongly I wanted to spend time with her music and its creation. SCOTT WILSON >> We wanted to show that she became the Queen of Soul when she was able to tap into her own truth and put that into the music she wanted to play and to sing. Then her finding her artistic voice leads to how she finds her personal and political voice.


Were you concerned about following the “Genius” series, which obviously covers much of the same ground?

TOMMY >> Aretha Franklin’s life is so big that it deserves as many people telling her story in as many ways is possible.

SCOTT WILSON >> Aretha absolutely wanted a bigscreen movie version of her life, and she picked Jennifer Hudson personally. I’m proud to be part of making that dream a reality.

 ?? PHOTOS BY QUANTRELL D. COLBERT, METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER PICTURES INC. ?? Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin in “Respect.”
PHOTOS BY QUANTRELL D. COLBERT, METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER PICTURES INC. Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin in “Respect.”
 ??  ?? Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin and Forest Whitaker as her father C.L. Franklin in “Respect.”
Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin and Forest Whitaker as her father C.L. Franklin in “Respect.”

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