Aretha Franklin’s Multitudes Come To Life In Director Liesl Tommy’s ‘Respect’

South-African born director Liesl Tommy says all of her art is political. That includes her new movie Respect starring Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin, focusing on the women in the singer’s life.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

“Respect” is the name of a new biopic about Aretha Franklin. Before she died, Franklin hand-picked Jennifer Hudson to play her and sing as her.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “RESPECT”)

JENNIFER HUDSON: (As Aretha Franklin, singing) What you want? Baby, I got it. What you need? You know I got it.

CHANG: “Respect” is also the first movie directed by Liesl Tommy, whose work has mostly been in theater. NPR’s Elizabeth Blair has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “(YOU MAKE ME FEEL LIKE) A NATURAL WOMAN”)

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) Looking out on the morning rain.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Like millions of people around the world, director Liesl Tommy is a huge Aretha Franklin fan.

LIESL TOMMY: I adore her so much, and she gave us so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “(YOU MAKE ME FEEL LIKE) A NATURAL WOMAN”)

FRANKLIN: (Singing) You make me feel like a natural woman.

BLAIR: Anthemic songs like “Natural Woman,” “Think,” “Chain Of Fools,” 18 Grammys, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, concerts, videos. There was a recent TV series about Franklin and the documentary “Amazing Grace,” but “Respect” is a major studio film and an authorized biopic.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “RESPECT”)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) How many albums have you had?

HUDSON: (As Aretha Franklin) Four.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) And no hits. Honey, find the songs that move you.

BLAIR: The movie looks at the lows, the highs and everything in between of Aretha Franklin’s life up until the year 1972. By then, she was an international star, but the journey there was tumultuous. The men in her life were domineering. Early in her career, her father – the prominent minister, Reverend C.L. Franklin – pushed Aretha to sing jazz and pop standards.

TOMMY: She had this powerful father who guided her early career, told her what to sing, told her what to wear, told her who to work with. And she adored him, really, and she wanted to please him, and so she did all of that. And then when she broke away from him, her husband took over that job.

BLAIR: Her husband was also physically abusive. As we see in the movie, Franklin eventually left him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “RESPECT”)

HUDSON: (As Aretha Franklin) This song goes out to anyone who’s ever felt mistreated.

BLAIR: This is Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in concert.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “RESPECT”)

HUDSON: (As Aretha Franklin, singing) You better think – think – think about what you’re trying to do to me, think – think, think – let your…

BLAIR: Black women control the narrative in “Respect.” Hudson is also an executive producer. Director Liesl Tommy was nominated for a Tony for the acclaimed play “Eclipsed” on Broadway. She also directed a play written by Tracey Scott Wilson and hand-picked her to write the screenplay for the movie.

TRACEY SCOTT WILSON: The Black female gaze is all over it.

BLAIR: It’s also the cast. Audra McDonald plays Franklin’s mother, who died when Aretha was 10. Mary J. Blige plays Dinah Washington. Kimberly Scott plays her grandmother. Liesl Tommy says in the past, a major studio biopic like “Respect” would have been directed by a white male. It also might have ignored how influential the women in Franklin’s life were.

TOMMY: All of these moments of change, all of these breakthrough moments probably would have had some dude telling her what to do. But in – we just know that in real life, especially, you know, in our real lives as Black women, it’s always a sister, aunty, cousin, girlfriend that gives you the real talk, that guides you from – through that breakthrough door.

BLAIR: The movie is also about creative breakthroughs and includes a number of scenes depicting the process behind some of Franklin’s hits. Liesl Tommy says she agonized over how to do that with the movie’s namesake.

TOMMY: How do we, in a movie called “Respect,” actually tackle “Respect” – (laughter) you know what I mean? It’s like, that song is – it was just so terrifying to think about creatively.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “RESPECT”)

HUDSON: (As Aretha Franklin, singing) All I’m asking…

BLAIR: In the movie, Aretha Franklin starts playing the Otis Redding classic in the middle of the night and then wakes up her sisters to help her make it her own. Her sisters are played by Saycon Sengbloh and Hailey Kilgore.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “RESPECT”)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Go a third below, can you?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Just a little bit.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yeah, there it is.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Just a little bit, just a little bit, yeah, baby.

WILSON: I really love the scenes with her sisters. It just shows the love between these really talented Black women.

BLAIR: Screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson has written for TV, including “The Americans” and “Fosse/Verdon.” She first got to know Liesl Tommy when Tommy directed one of her plays at the Public Theater in New York.

WILSON: She is just one of the strongest people that I’ve ever known. And she is clear. She has a vision. She’s a leader that people want to follow.

BLAIR: But the director admits the responsibility of making a movie about Aretha Franklin was both intimidating and challenging. Liesl Tommy says she was guided by a question she’s had for a long time.

TOMMY: I really thought a lot about what the phrase the queen of soul meant, how she became the person that sang with such emotional intensity. Who was she?

BLAIR: Indomitable artist, civil rights activist, devout Baptist – “Respect” tries to tackle many different dimensions of Aretha Franklin’s life and give us generous servings of music as well. Liesl Tommy hopes audiences come away with a better understanding of the woman behind one of the greatest voices of all time.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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