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"Respect" biopic aims to do right by Aretha Franklin

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

Posted: Wednesday, May 19, 2021

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The lid has come off of "Respect," the long-awaited -- and several-times delayed -- Aretha Franklin biopic.

After a short teaser last June, a full-scale trailer for the film was released on Wednesday morning, May 19. It offers the world's first look at Jennifer Hudson as the Queen of Soul, performing Franklin favorites such as "Respect" and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," along with glimpses at other portions of the movie.

And rest assured that Hudson and director Liesl Tommy can't wait for "Respect" to finally open in theaters on Aug. 13.

"I made the film to be seen on the big screen," Tommy, a Tony Award nominee who's making her feature film directorial debut with "Respect," said during a Zoom session with reporters on Tuesday, May 17. "I'm actually quite emotional, after the COVID of it all, to finally be able to share this film with the public. It's been years now, of love and effort poured into it."

Tommy and Hudson, in fact, predict that "Respect" will be help draw audiences back into theaters after a lengthy closure during the pandemic.

"What better way to go back to the theaters than through the Queen of Soul?" Hudson asked. "We can all come together. Your children love her. Your mom loves her, your grandparents...Take the family. It's the perfect way to get back to the theater. Get your popcorn, 'cause I'm gonna get mine!"

Tommy, who edited the film remotely while in lockdown, added that, "I think there's something glorious about (Franklin's) journey. And I don't know about y'all, but I need a little glory in my life right now, after COVID.

"I feel people will be healed by this movie."

"Respect" has indeed taken a long road to its hoped-for arrival in three months -- which seems a safe bet thanks to the recent acceleration in re-opening society, including increasing capacities in theaters.

Filmed primarily in Atlanta during late 2019 and early 2020, "Respect" was initially slated to open during the fall of 2020, then was bumped to December and then to Jan. 15 to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. It was bumped to Aug. 13.

In addition to Hudson -- who was hand-picked by the late Franklin to portray her -- "Respect" features Forest Whitaker as her father C.F. Franklin, Marlon Wayans as ex-husband Ted White, Saycon Sengbloh and Hailey Kilgore as sisters Erma and Carolyn Franklin, respectively, Skye Dakota as a young Franklin, Marc Maron as producer Jerry Wexler and Mary J. Blige as Dinah Washington. Hudson and Tommy said Tuesday that the cast was united on set by mutual mission to tell the story correctly.

"Our set was a really fun, really loving place 'cause we all just wanted to do right by her," said the director, who worked from a screenplay by Tracey Scott Wilson. "It was all of these incredibly beautiful actors, incredibly beautiful black people, bringing their A game bathing that screen with the best they have to give. Jenny and I talked about this early on, there's gonna be no divas on the set except for the ghost of Aretha Franklin."

Hudson, one of "Respect's" executive producers, concurred that "that was the most beautiful part. There was not a soul on that set that did not want to be there. It made it so warming. It was a family environment, and everybody, every single department, put their heart into this project."

That goes without saying for Hudson, who Franklin first approached about playing her after the younger singer won an Academy Award for 2006's "Dreamgirls" and formally asked her nearly a decade later, while Hudson was on Broadway in a revival of "The Color Purple." Playing Franklin was "natural," Hudson says, right down to their shared roots in the church. She even learned to play piano for the role -- "I will never be on Ms. Franklin's level, let's make that clear," Hudson quipped -- but she also learned a great deal about Franklin, as a musician and as a performer.

"It wasn't until being in the thick of things I even got to understand her that much more for myself, as a person -- not necessarily 'Omigod, that's Aretha Franklin the icon' or The Voice or this or that song, but to able to learn of the individual while developing the character," Hudson said.

Tommy added that getting inside of the legend was the mission she felt from the time she was first invited to offer "a take" on Franklin's story to the studio.

"Whenever Jennifer and I would talk about (Franklin), that's what resonated for both of us -- the complexity and the depth of who she was, and that's what we wanted to bring to the screen," Tommy said. "This should be a story of a young woman with the greatest voice in the world fighting to find her own voice. She had to go on a journey to become that brilliant musician we know. That journey is the journey to self.

"That, to me, felt like the most profound investigation into her legacy. I hope that people feel that depth of who she is as a person. It all had to live up to Ms. Franklin; She embodied excellence and taste, so our movie has to live in that same place."

Updates about "Respect" can be found at respect.movie.

Web Site: www.respect.move

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