You can see the look in her eye, as clearly as you see the microphone in her hand. It’s the look that dreams, future awards and starring roles in Aretha Franklin biopics are made on.
In early 1998, a sophomore from Bronzeville’s Dunbar Vocational Career Academy took a field trip along with 300 other area students. The Grammy in the Schools Program, held at DePaul University that day in January, invited a panel of record label executives, music promoters and other industry veterans to advise the teenagers on their futures in show business.
“Be tough. Be persistent, said one label owner,” wrote the Tribune’s Valerie Q. Carino, who was there that day along with Tribune photographer Nancy Stone. The top of the Tribune story focused on the 16-year-old sophomore, who introduced herself to the panel: “Hi, I’m Jennifer Hudson. I’m a vocal music major at Dunbar High School, and if you have time, I’d like to sing you a song.”
Then, Carino wrote, “Hudson didn’t have to wait at the microphone for long to hear her answer, as the panel of deejays, label owners and managers nodded yes. Her silver earrings shaking, Jennifer then closed her eyes and belted out a sweet, soulful rendition of a Whitney Houston song.
And “when she finished, the audience was on its feet.”
A lot has happened to Hudson since then, some of it wonderful (motherhood; Grammys; an Oscar for her 2006 film debut, “Dreamgirls”), some of it devastating. In October 2008 Hudson’s mother, Darnell Donerson; Hudson’s brother, Jason Hudson; and Hudson’s nephew, Julian, were murdered by Hudson’s estranged brother-in-law, William Balfour. The tabloids couldn’t get enough of that story.
“The appetite for the personal details of celebrity is just unending,” “Respect” director Liesl Tommy told me by phone. Tommy, a Tony nominee for directing “Eclipsed” on Broadway, has done a good deal of television; her dramatization of Aretha Franklin’s 1952-1972 years marks her feature directorial debut.
“Both Aretha and Jennifer have had tragedy in their lives,” the director said. “And I think Aretha never recovered from the loss of her own mother. The scenes (in the film) where Jennifer had to live in the grief of that loss were not easy. They cost her a lot.”
“Respect” is the film Hudson, who turns 40 next month, has been waiting 15 years to make and the one her entire life has pointed toward, like an arrow.
Franklin’s soul, pop and gospel albums provided the soundtrack to her growing-up years in Englewood. Years later, in her successful 2004 audition for “American Idol” Hudson chose Franklin’s “Share Your Love With Me.” A decade later, at the BET Awards, Hudson triumphed with medley of “Rock Steady,” “Think” and “Respect” and more, with Aretha in attendance. By then she and Franklin had become friends. And by then, Franklin wanted her to star in the movie of her life.
“To realize how much of a blueprint Aretha’s been throughout my life,” Hudson says now, “all through my career, it’s just … I try to find the words for it. It’s a story only God could write.”
On the terrace of the downtown Chicago Peninsula Hotel, Hudson spoke of gratitude and effort and her longtime dream of playing this woman. Right after “Dreamgirls,” she says, she took her first meetings about an Aretha Franklin biopic. Then a whole lot got in the way: the usual studio game of red light/green light/red light; all that tabloid coverage; career accomplishments and setbacks.
When “Respect” finally fell together, with Broadway stage director Tommy and a screenplay by dramatist and screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson, Hudson was ready to work.
“I had an acting coach, a dialect coach, a movement coach and a piano teacher, all focused on different elements,” she says. “It was Leland Thompson, my acting coach, who asked: “What were this woman’s circumstances? Why was she the way she was? How much space was she allowed to take up in a room? How much freedom did she have to speak? Someone like myself, I’m going to take up space. But if I’m portraying this person, I have to conform to their conditions, and I needed to understand the conditions she came up in to do that.”
Director Tommy brought screenwriter Wilson on board once Tommy was hired. The first cut of “Respect,” Wilson told me by phone, ran five and a half hours. The final cut runs two hours and 25 minutes, featuring Forest Whitaker as Franklin’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, Detroit spiritual royalty with all-too-human flaws; Audra McDonald as Franklin’s musically inspired, short-lived mother, Barbara Franklin; Marlon Wayans as Franklin’s husband, manager and tormentor Ted Franklin; and many more, including Mary J. Blige as powerhouse vocalist Dinah Washington, who helps Franklin discover her true instincts as a singer.
“I love that Liesl was brave enough to allow things to breathe,” Hudson says of the film’s rehearsal and songwriting sequences, more generous and authentic than you find in most showbiz biopics. Hudson served as executive producer on “Respect” in addition to starring. “It was so important to all of us to pick actors who really were singers, and musicians, so we could make the scenes real.”
The movie underwent a preproduction workshop process akin to what many Broadway musicals undergo prior to full production. “First time I met Jennifer,” said screenwriter Wilson, “it was in New York, at a rehearsal. She’d been working with dialect, movement and singing coaches a lot by then. And it was nothing short of remarkable to see her transform herself as Aretha. Jennifer doesn’t talk like that, or walk like that, but it was effortless and just so thrilling to see her become her.”
As one of the film’s executive producers, Hudson says, one goal was to “make sure the faith was present,” both in the story and the music. Hudson grew up singing in the church; a 2008 Tribune story by Robert K. Elder notes her long-standing ties to the South Side’s Progressive Baptist Church and Pleasant Gift Missionary Baptist Church.
Franklin’s spirituality, later a lifeline out of a childhood marked by sexual abuse, was “always there in the script,” Hudson notes. “But we all wanted to make sure the faith was at the forefront in everyone’s minds. Aretha sang all styles of music, but no matter what genre she sang, gospel was always the base.”
The lure and potential traps of fame were part of Franklin’s life, too. Director Tommy recalled rehearsing a scene with Hudson and Blige. Between scenes, she said, the actors eased into “this great conversation about stardom. The scene we were working on was about a young musician and singer, Aretha, and somebody who was already a superstar, Dinah Washington. And here they were, Jennifer and Mary J. Blige, talking and talking about who supported them along their paths, who was shady — and how they found their voice. Those conversations helped make everything work. Once they actually got on set, they just had to live it.”
After the preparation, the filming and now the publicity surrounding “Respect” and its pandemic-confined theatrical release, Hudson is hardly done with Franklin’s music. “I still work on my piano lessons,” she says. “I’m a fan, so I still listen to the music. You can’t learn enough about her. “
There’s a pause in the conversation, and then Hudson mentions: “I still live in Chicago, by the way,” meaning suburban Burr Ridge. She shares a photo of her 11-year-old son, David, who has just texted her with a groceries-related request.
“He has the biggest heart,” she says, recalling a time years earlier when they lived “in a high-rise and I’d take his high chair and face it toward the windows and the view, because I wanted him to know there is no limit. I still teach him what my mother taught me: Whatever you put your mind to, you can do.”
And now? After Aretha?
“Oprah!” answers Hudson, in a half-second and with a laugh. Oprah Winfrey is the real-life legend she’d love to portray next.
“That’s my newest dream. I would love to play Oprah! I’ll put it out into the universe, just like I did with Aretha.” In an “OWN Spotlight” interview premiering last month, Winfrey conducted her latest sit-down and walk-around with Hudson.
“I was waiting for her to ask me who I wanted to play next, and if she had I’d have been, like, ‘You!’ She’s another great one, in a whole new direction, and I know one day we’re going to have ‘The Oprah Story,’ and I’m getting older, and this time I really don’t want to wait 15 years to play her!” Another laugh, but she’s serious, even if it’s a brand-new dream.
“So, c’mon now!” she says, with a look in her eye that’s not that different from the one in the Tribune photo of her when she was 16 and ripe for her own future. “Here we go!”
‘Respect’ premieres in theaters Friday.