When Director Liesl Tommy conceptualised the cinematic narrative of Aretha Franklin’s life, she was inspired to tell the story of a woman who had the greatest voice in the world but who still did not know know what her voice meant, which became the spine of the highly-anticipated film Respect.
“When I was first asked for my take on this film, I knew immediately that I wanted it to focus on a specific, formative time period of Ms. Franklin’s life which contained things the general public doesn’t know about her,” says Tommy, an award-winning international theater director who makes her feature directorial debut with Respect, directing from a screenplay by Tracey Scott Wilson. “She had to go on a journey to become the brilliant musician that we know. To me, that journey felt like the most profound investigation of her legacy. From the beginning, I saw this film as a story about a young woman with the greatest voice in the world, who was fighting to find her own voice.”
“Aretha Franklin understood that Jennifer Hudson had a gift and that also Jennifer has a tenderness that is a part of her character, the humility that I think Aretha responded to,” says Liesl Tommy. “You know, so when somebody, when you’re thinking about who’s going to play me, and I know that I have one of the great voices of all time, it better be another person who has one of the great voices of all time.”
“Aretha Franklin loved Black people. I love Black people. I wanted to make sure that Black people would feel loved by this film in the way that we shot them; we tried to give them time and space to live their lives, to breathe, and to unfold,” says Tommy. “This was our opportunity to say who we are. That authenticity is in every frame of this film. Additionally, I felt strongly about showing a meaningful experience of a young Black girl’s childhood, and Tracey Scott Wilson was right there with me. We don’t have enough films out there about Black people who are wealthy and successful. Ms. Franklin came from wealth, and her family dynamic resonates throughout the film.”
“One privilege of making art is to heal people. Metaphorically, all of my art leads back to my childhood growing up in the midst of apartheid in South Africa. All of my art is political. I was able to heal myself through my art, and one intention behind Respect was to show that Ms. Franklin was able to heal herself through her art. It was essential to me that people feel the depth of who she was as a person.”
Bringing Aretha Franklin’s Story To The Big Screen
Producers Scott Bernstein and Harvey Mason Jr. discussed the idea of creating the Aretha Franklin biopic when they wrapped Straight Outta Compton. Mason said to Bernstein “I’m familiar with the story, I love the story, but let me go home and figure out what the movie is. Not just a biopic, it has to be about something bigger than someone’s life.” Bernstein recalls.
Bernstein and Mason called Ms. Franklin. “We spent three hours on the phone talking about what her story could be and that was just the beginning of a four-year journey. Every couple of months we would speak, and it was sort of her gauging the story because it’s her legacy,” Bernstein recalls.
“The inspiration is simple. ARETHA. You know, it was her voice. It was her story, her persona. She is larger than life,” Mason adds. “I’d been working with her on her music for the last 13 or so years of her career and she was such a presence. She had so much history, so much story behind her voice. And the more I got to know her, the more I said people have to know about this. People don’t know a lot other than this incredible, miraculous voice. But when you start to learn the story, you realize how valuable and inspirational it can be, especially in a time like now.”
“Aretha’s impact was almost ubiquitous across music and in culture. She was putting out so much music, was so relevant, almost forward-looking as to what was happening in our country and our society but also seeing around the corner as to what needed to happen,” says Mason.
“We worked with Ms. Franklin to come up with the right paradigm. Generally with cradle to grave biopics you can lose a little bit of focus along the way. It’s always tough to say, ‘We’re only going to focus on this period of life.’ But it seemed very natural that we would start the movie with Aretha in church, and for that to end appropriately, we wanted to end with her in church,” Producer Jonathan Glickman adds. “So we knew we were going to end at the “Amazing Grace” live album recording. The spine of the story would be a movie about a father/daughter relationship. And, that gave us a focus to tell the period of her rise, and the origin story of her becoming the Queen of Soul.”
“I had a dream for myself after Dreamgirls – coming off something as big as that? And I said the only thing that could top that would be to play Aretha Franklin, and I don’t know if she heard me or if she had that same thing in mind,” Jennifer Hudson reveals. “But right after I won my Oscar for Dreamgirls, she wanted to meet me, and it was in New York. Over 15 years ago. That’s how long we talked about this. We sat down, and we talked about me playing her. And she told me I was very shy, asking me “are you shy or something?” I remember telling her “well I am sitting here talking to Ms. Aretha Franklin.”
“When I look back throughout my career thus far – many times I got to tribute Aretha, meet her, sing her songs, admire her. Thinking back to Dreamgirls, people mentioned that I was reminiscent of a young version of Aretha Franklin.” Hudson explains. “Now it seems that it was destined in a way,”
“Aretha Franklin understood that Jennifer had a gift and that also Jennifer has a tenderness that is a part of her character, the humility that I think Aretha responded to,” says Liesl Tommy. “You know, so when somebody, when you’re thinking about who’s going to play me, and I know that I have one of the great voices of all time, it better be another person who has one of the great voices of all time. And that’s to me how that came about.”
Tommy continues: “Working in theatre, before you even get up on your feet, you just sit and you read the script many, many times over and you analyze every single page. And sometimes you get to do an abbreviated version of that in film, and sometimes you don’t, but I asked for it. So we really were able to talk at length and meaningfully about every page of the script, what it meant, what the ideas were, where it came from, what the literal thing was, and then what the cinematic thing would be. So Jennifer and I were able to be extremely prepared for the emotional work that was going to have to happen on set at no point was she blindsided at no point was she winging it,” she explains.
“My feeling is the more actors understand all the nooks and crannies of the journey that they have to go on they know how to prepare, so once you get on set, we’re already completely on the same page; you give the framework and the work happens. Jennifer has this extraordinary emotional capacity. Aretha Franklin knew what she was doing when she set it up. That’s what I want. And once I had my very first meeting with Jennifer and I looked in her eyes, listened to her talk, I understood what Aretha Franklin meant, why she chose her,” Tommy continues.
“It’s not just about the voice. It’s about the essence they shared. There are things in their lives that they share. And so for me, the job was to just make sure that the pathway for Jennifer to get to that, to share that essence, to share that thing, that it was safe and she was supported. And we were clear about the story we were telling. That’s how you make an, a, create an environment for actors to flourish,” Tommy explains. “It’s a combination of trusting them and it’s a combination of guiding them.”
“Her singing, her knowing her calling, her anointing is what we would call. It was her saving grace. That was her comfort, which you will see in this film. You’ll get to learn that [music] became her healer. The stage became her home, and that was her comfort zone. And that was something that belonged to her that she could always go to — anytime she would sing she would go into that place. That was her safe haven, her comfort zone, her shelter, her expression,” says Jennifer Hudson about the enormous gift of Aretha Franklin’s voice.
“Music is a living and breathing character in this film, as it was in Ms. Franklin’s life. The process of creating this song was like constructing the greatest tribute I could possibly offer to her spirit. It was the final exhale of this extraordinary project and one that I let out with complete fulfillment.
“Jennifer and I spent a lot of time talking in the months and months before we even got on set about the incredible responsibility that we both felt, the pressure that we both felt, and how this is one of the ones where you just throw it all on the floor. There’s nothing to hold back. You’re going to give it all up, to the film and to Aretha’s legacy, and to the fans, you know,” Liesl Tommy says. “If you dare to take this story on, there are no half measures. And, every single day on set it was evident that Jennifer completely understood that. She threw her whole self into the storytelling.”
“Definitely,” Hudson explains. “I feel like that’s why Aretha and I relate, you know. I totally understand that. I get what music represented for her because it represents the same for me. The base of it comes from the church when you’re that young. I started singing in church, as they said I was a lap baby on my grandmother’s knee in the choir. They wanted a note hit, and I hit the note. Well, when you grow up in church singing the way Aretha and I did, you know, you learn to sing with a purpose with substance to a higher calling such as God — it’s a completely different thing than just a simple song, it creates a sacred connection and comfort, which again I can, it’s my life.”
Aretha Franklin’s voice is considered the best, most powerful, and culturally significant voice of all time.
Aretha Franklin was a musical genius. Her voice, songwriting, production, and performances speak to her artistic gifts and vision that made her one of the most renowned singers in history. Ms. Franklin was nominated 44 times for Grammy®Awards — she won 18 of those awards. She was also honored by the Recording Academy with a Legend Award (1991), Lifetime Achievement Award (1994), and a Music Cares Person of the Year Award (2008). She graced the cover of Time Magazine on June 28, 1968, with the headline: “The Sound of Soul.” It’s no wonder Aretha Franklin is the undisputed Queen of Soul.
The Queen of Soul’s hit songs Respect, (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman, I Say a Little Prayer, and Think, to name a few, have become a part of the American music canon — all classics that defined the resistance and resilience of Black people during the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, and the Women’s Movement — and still resonate today at a moment in time where the world is in crisis and in need of soulfulness.
The core of soul music is a deeply emotional expression of a confluence of joy and pain — often influenced by love, sorrow, and release — in an attempt to find salvation in a world that subjugates, oppresses, and marginalizes.
Ms. Franklin’s story is one that profoundly resonates right now when the world is going through a cathartic racial reckoning and a tipping point of a cultural revolution where diverse identities are unapologetically declaring their voices and visibility.
Aretha Franklin created a road map through her own life experience from being a child music prodigy who grew up with great privilege in a household in Detroit that understood the importance of social protest, racial justice, and community organizing which was centered squarely in the foundation of the Black church — faith, service, and self-actualization.
And while Ms. Franklin will always be remembered for having the best voice of all time, the finding of her voice is not widely known. The challenge for Aretha Franklin is a masterclass in navigating and overcoming grief that would become the artistic inspiration that created musical masterpieces that have saved lives, moved culture, and shifted the soundtrack to Black America. Ms. Franklin’s gifts quite frankly made room for her and in turn, anyone who listened to her music.
Director Liesl Tommy considered all of this as she was conceptualizing the cinematic narrative of Aretha Franklin’s life.