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For Jennifer Hudson, playing Aretha Franklin meant showing ‘her faith was always present’

The star of the new biopic ‘Respect’ says she and the Queen of Soul shared a reverence for the church.

Jennifer Hudson poses for a portrait Thursday in Chicago, the city she says “is my home and always will be.”
Jennifer Hudson poses for a portrait Thursday in Chicago, the city she says “is my home and always will be.”
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The first time we see Jennifer Hudson as a teenage Aretha Franklin in the sweeping and rousing biopic “Respect,” she’s singing in church.

Much deeper into the story, after Franklin has been crowned the Queen of Soul and has been through every high and low imaginable through the decades, she’s singing … in church.

Faith and spirituality are a theme in “Respect,” which has sneak-preview screenings Sunday before opening in theaters Thursday (full review coming soon) and is sure to have Hudson — who won best supporting actress for her feature debut in 2006’s “Dreamgirls” — in the conversation for a second Academy Award.

“Faith is very important,” Hudson said in an interview on a hotel terrace on a sunny summer afternoon in her hometown of Chicago. “It’s the base of her and myself. It’s the thing that helped me get through the film. And it’s the thing that felt most at home.

“When we were shooting that scene [with Aretha as a teenager], I felt like, ‘This is church.’ You can’t really script that. … That was the most important thing to me to maintain throughout the film: her faith. And the gospel in her music, no matter what genre she sang, no matter where she was in life, gospel was always the blueprint. And her faith was always present.”

Hudson has been on the road for a multi-city tour to promote “Respect,” and it’s the first time she’s been out and about since the outbreak of the pandemic.

“I’ve lost count of how many cities it’s been,” she said. “I feel like I’ve been in it for a while. This is the first thing where I’ve been out. It was overwhelming at first, but I’m enjoying it.

“I can’t help but think of how Aretha Franklin brought so many people together in life with her music. So what better way to pay homage to her life than everybody seeing this movie in theaters.”

Jennifer Hudson plays Aretha Franklin in “Respect.” When singing in the movie, she often asked herself, “How I can approach this in a way that’s different from just Jennifer Hudson singing a tribute to Aretha Franklin?”
MGM

When we think of biographical films about famous pop and rock and soul idols, it’s often performers who are actors first and musicians second, like Jamie Foxx in “Ray,” Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in “Walk the Line,” Rami Malek in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” (Barbra Streisand and Lady Gaga played fictional characters in their star turns in “A Star Is Born.”)

With “Respect,” we have an established music superstar playing a generational legend. Was that more of a challenge for Hudson because we know her persona and her voice so well?

“You know what? Yes. It seems like it would be a plus, but it was just as much of a challenge. Like: How can I approach this in a way that’s different from just Jennifer Hudson singing a tribute to Aretha Franklin?

“And then: How do you even gather the essence of her that’s so familiar to people as well? During filming, that’s what stayed with me: Am I supposed to try to sound like her, or do I use more of my voice?

“I sat with a dialect coach and talked about how our vocal instruments are built differently. Our approaches are different. So, yes, I’m singing it, but I’m using her approach, her nuances and inflections, the place where she sings from.

“And then you have to consider the narrative, where we are along the timeline. For example, the song ‘Ain’t No Way.’ I, as Jennifer Hudson, know the song completely. I can sing it, and I know every lick. Whereas, in the context of the film, she’s learning the song, so now I have to unlearn the song and approach it as if I’m just now discovering it.”

In addition to all the familiar Franklin hits, “Respect” features a new number, “Here I Am (Singing My Way Home”), co-written by Hudson with the great Carole King (who, of course, co-wrote Franklin’s classic “Natural Woman” with Gerry Goffin).

Aretha Franklin performs at Chicago’s Arie Crown Theater in 1972.
Sun-Times file

“We did it via Zoom during the pandemic,” Hudson said. “She pulled from her experiences with Aretha, knowing her, and then also my church upbringing. She wanted me to be a part of the writing process. Imagine Carole King saying, ‘You go write this,’ and I’m, like, ‘Oh, my God, thank you!’

“This was the parallel I felt with Aretha. You can’t tell me she didn’t sing her way home. She sang to her last breath, and we all got to witness that. And I walk around thinking all the time, just to get home here to Chicago. I always find myself, every day, singing my way back home. Another note, another song to get there.”

Most of the songs in “Respect” were performed live, which gives the film an extra layer of authenticity but also means Hudson had to perform multiple takes of each number for different camera angles.

“Probably 14 of the 18 songs on the soundtrack were done live,” she said. “As an actor, I wanted to experience these songs as Aretha did in her life. So anything that she sang live in concert, we’ll sing it live. If it’s a recording session, then we’ll record it.”

Multiple threads run through “Respect,” from the timeline of Franklin’s career to her problems with alcohol to her differences with her family to the abusive relationships she survived.

But considerable time also is devoted to Franklin’s devotion to civil rights.

“That was so honorable of her, for her to take a stand when she was in a position where she didn’t necessarily have to,” Hudson said. “But that showed the heart of her and how much she loved her people and how conscious she was of her time. And it can’t help but make artists like myself think, ‘What am I doing with my platform? What can I do with my platform?’ ”

As for being back home, Hudson said: “This is still home. There’s no place like home. People are always, like, ‘What are you doing here? Are you singing here?’

“And I’m, like, ‘I live here, I’m from here.’ People have this perception that all celebrities live in Hollywood or New York. But, no, Chicago is my home and always will be.”