‘Respect’ was years in the making: The story behind Aretha Franklin’s long quest for a biopic (2024)

Aretha Franklin’s long road to “Respect” took a crucial turn with a phone call in 2012.

For several years, the star had talked up the possibility of a feature film about her life and music. Though she was brimming with ambition and ideas, it sometimes seemed her enthusiasm got ahead of her–as if she could wish a multimillion-dollar movie into existence.

At the urging of her longtime publicist and friend Gwendolyn Quinn, Franklin rang up the manager of the late Ray Charles. Joe Adams had been on the frontlines as the acclaimed 2004 biopic “Ray” came together to tell the story of another Black music icon.

“That was the conversation that really put her on a different path thinking about the project: ‘Wow, this movie thing is a long process,’” Quinn said. “Joe Adams explained to Aretha how involved it can be. He gave her some great, sound advice, and got her really thinking about the things she needed to think about.”

Review:As Aretha Franklin, a soulful Jennifer Hudson keeps 'Respect' from hitting the wrong note

‘Respect’ was years in the making: The story behind Aretha Franklin’s long quest for a biopic (1)

The biopic “Respect,” starring Jennifer Hudsonas the Queen of Soul’s sanctioned leading lady, will at last hit theaters Friday, three years to the week after Franklin’s death. The MGM film, directed by Broadway veteran Liesl Tommy and featuring Forest Whitaker as father C.L. Franklin, portrays the Detroit singer’s early years of talent, tragedy and triumph.

Aretha Franklin may be gone, but the new movie very much bears her fingerprints. In a backstory unusual for a Hollywood biopic but quite in character for the strong-willed Queen of Soul, the project was set in motion and driven by Franklin herself.

In her final years, it became her passion project.

“I knew it would happenbecause she wanted it to happen,” said her niece Sabrina Owens.

Determined to crystalize her legacy in her own way, the star worked for nearly two decades to bring her story to life somewhere — on the big screen, the stage, even television. She ground through talks with assorted producers and investors as potential deals arose then fizzled. She churned through picks for big-name actors and directors. Shrugging off Hollywood protocol, she publicly trumpeted those wish lists and negotiations as she went.

Over the years, the headlines became routine: Aretha has anointed Halle Berry! Audra McDonald! Fantasia! Jennifer Hudson! She wanted Denzel Washington to play her father. Terrence Howard could appear as lifelong friend Smokey Robinson.

More:Jennifer Hudson tours Detroit, joins Aretha Franklin family for ‘Respect' screening

More:'Respect' costume designer says the Queen of Soul's fashion choices revealed her humanity

Throughout the process, say people close to her, Franklin was intent on retaining creative control. After all, she had achieved musical heights and cultural influence few humans have experienced. Who better to tell Aretha’s story than Aretha herself?

Combine that with her wariness of outsiders — and her sensitivity about the portrayal of her family — and the journey to a biopic got complicated.

In June 2012, citing failed talkswith an unnamed production group, Franklin told the Detroit Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network, that artistic control had been a deal-breaker.

“They wanted to cast who was going to play me, but I wanted to cast who would play me, (along with) who was going to play my dad and the principals,” she said. “I felt by it being my story, I was the person who needed to be happy when it was over. I didn’t feel they were more qualified to choose those people, artistically, than I was. They don’t know the people. I know my family better.”

‘Respect’ was years in the making: The story behind Aretha Franklin’s long quest for a biopic (2)

Greg Dunmore, a close friend of Franklin, said that throughout her film quest, the singer grasped the commercial realities and the need for a bankable movie. But overriding it all was a devotion toart for art’s sake.

“I wouldn’t say she was naïve. But she was headstrong. When she came up with a strategy, she was very convinced she knew what she was doing,” he said. “And when on top of that head is a crown, there’s a certain je nesaisquoi, something special. Aretha certainly understood the power she had as a celebrity, as a star.”

Still, one Hollywood veteran privy to Franklin’s dealings but not authorized to speak publiclysaid that for all her drive, a Queen of Soul biopic was unlikely to have materialized while she was here: The deeply private singerwould have resisted the sort of screenplay needed to make a compelling, successful film.

“She was never going to approve a script. If it was truthful, there were things that would have been blasphemous to her,” the person said. “There was no way you were going to a make a movie with her while she was alive.”

The project that became “Respect” fell into place shortly before Franklin’s passing in August 2018. While there was no script, Franklin gave her blessing to producers Scott Bernstein and Harvey Mason Jr., who had a story outline and talked regularly with the singer. MGM was in the picture and, earlier that year, record mogul and Franklin confidante Clive Davis announced that Hudson was locked down for the lead role.

By 2019, Tommy was enlisted as director, and shooting began that fall.

Though no formal agreement was signed with Franklin before her death – producers did eventually lock down a deal with her estate – the film’s momentum was a final career triumph for the storied star.

“It makes me happy she was so involved, that she was excited about it,” Mason told the Free Press the afternoon of Franklin’s death. “I’m really pleased her story will be told by someone who loves her.”

An early interest in film

Aretha long had an itch for movie stardom.

In 1968, perhaps inspired by family friend and gospel great Clara Ward’s role in the MGM film “A Time to Sing,” Franklin reworked her Atlantic Records contract, turning it into a joint deal with the record label and its sister film studio Warner Bros.-Seven Arts.

But even as her music career soared, little became of her on-screen ambitions. In 1972, she appeared in an episode of the ABC-TV series “Room 222,” then stepped up for Sydney Pollack’s long-shelved gospel documentary “Amazing Grace.” Eight years later came a brief but memorable turn in “The Blues Brothers.”

By the 2000s, Franklin’s concert touring had become limited – she had a fear of flying – and her record sales were down. But what forever loomed large were her life’s journey and body of musical work.

Franklin’s 1998 memoir, “From These Roots,” had been a best seller. Now in her 60s, the singer had her eye on the bigger picture.

“People start thinking about their legacy, looking beyond their life," said Quinn. "She had done everything else. She had achieved so much. (A biopic) was the one thing she hadn’t done. And I knew it was becoming important to herbecause we started dealing with it regularly.”

‘Respect’ was years in the making: The story behind Aretha Franklin’s long quest for a biopic (3)

Afirstmeeting with Jennifer Hudson

‘Respect’ was years in the making: The story behind Aretha Franklin’s long quest for a biopic (4)

Franklin initially set out to take her story to the stage.

In spring 2007, Franklin hosted three days of auditions in the Detroit area, welcoming actors and singers from across the country for a musical to be based on her memoir. It was to include a performer playing Aretha in her 20s – “the foxy R&B years,” as her casting call put it.

She wanted to debut the show in Detroit before taking it to Broadway, though the project ultimately faded away.

But it was there that Dunmore, part of Franklin’s casting panel, proposed Hudson as the Queen of Soul onstage, he said. The young “American Idol” champ had just dazzled with an Oscar-winning performance in “Dreamgirls.”

Franklin, he said, instantly shot down the idea. Dunmore said he pressed his case — Hudson had the right look and vocal chops — but Franklin was adamant.

According to Dunmore, it turned out that Franklin had recently met with Hudson for tea at New York’s Trump Towerand felt they hadn’t clicked.

“She interpreted that initial interaction badly,” Dunmore said.

While not asked about that specific contention in a recent Free Press interview, Hudson did describe an early meeting with Franklin that went somewhat awkwardly:

“Aretha asked, ‘How are you going to portray me?’ I said, ‘Well, how you like to be portrayed?!’ I thought, is she shy or something? Am I talking to Aretha Franklin?”

But by 2012, Hudson was firmly on Franklin’s wish list, as the star emphasized in interviews that year.

“I don’t know that we’re looking for an imitator,” Franklin told the Free Press soon after. “I’m looking for someone who can turn in a stellar performance.”

A breakthrough at last

Franklin’s biopic hopes finally started to gainreal steam in 2015 — thanks to a gangsta rap movie.

“I’ll never forget the day she called and asked if I knew who Scott Bernstein was,” Quinn said. “I didn’t, but she told me he’s a producer — he did ‘Straight Outta Compton.’ Well, oh! I had fallen in love with that movie. I loved the story and fell for all the characters and actors. I saw it four times. I think that (reaction) gave him a notch up in her mind.”

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Franklin had been linked up with Bernstein via Harvey Mason Jr., who had previously worked with the singer and was a music producer on the N.W.A. biopic.

Bernstein cranked out a two-page storyline ending in 1972, the year Franklin returned to her gospel roots to cut the blockbuster live record “Amazing Grace.”

Mason arranged a phone call with Franklin during whichBernstein laid out his vision for a film.

“You’re the queen,” he told her. “But we all have struggled. We all have to fight our demons.”

The singer heard him out as Bernstein described a movie that would chronicle the struggles of Black Americans in the ‘50s and Franklin’s early career battles — her “fight for female rights, civil rights, her own voice,” he said.

“If we can tell that story,” Franklin replied, “I’d love to be involved.”

Franklin’s interest was clearly piqued, but Bernstein didn’t hear back for a couple of months. For the next year, they periodically talked, steadily gaining each other’s trust.

At last, Franklin gave him the word: She was in.

Franklin’s talks with Bernstein accelerated from there. The producer insisted to her that “these stories come with the good and the bad, and we have to have both for the audience.”

They talked in depth about Franklin’s father, her ex-husband Ted White, Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler, her children.

“She was always very cognizant that she has four sons, and she wanted them to be proud of this,” Bernstein said.

By 2018, months before Franklin’s death, things were clicking. Bernstein and company had several studios interested, and MGM ultimately stepped up.

Hudson, meanwhile, was now Franklin’s settled pick. Hudson remembers the phone call from the Queen of Soul, who told her: “I’ve finally made my decision. It’s you, young lady, who I want to play me.”

And so in 2021, at last, “Respect” has arrived.

The film has been screened and warmly received by Franklin family members — and they say it’s what she wanted.

Owens, Franklin’s niece, said the only regret is that she isn’t here to experience the film and the fanfare.

“Hopefully, somehow someway, she’s in heaven seeing what’s going onbecause she would be so excited,” Owens said. “She was ready for it, she wanted it, she wanted her fans to see it. And I think she absolutely would have loved this.”

Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or bmccollum@freepress.com.

As an avid enthusiast with a deep understanding of Aretha Franklin's life and the making of the biopic "Respect," I draw on a wealth of knowledge to provide insights into the various concepts embedded in the article.

1. Aretha Franklin's Ambition and Enthusiasm: The article underscores Aretha Franklin's long-standing desire to bring her life story to the screen. Despite her ambitious plans, it highlights how her enthusiasm sometimes outpaced the practicalities of making a multimillion-dollar movie.

2. Turning Point in 2012: A pivotal moment occurred in 2012 when Aretha Franklin, under the advice of her publicist Gwendolyn Quinn, contacted Joe Adams, the manager of the late Ray Charles. This conversation served as a reality check for Franklin, making her realize the complexity and lengthy process involved in creating a biopic.

3. Aretha Franklin's Creative Control: Throughout her quest for a biopic, Aretha Franklin was determined to retain creative control over the project. The article emphasizes her insistence on being actively involved in decisions regarding casting, storytelling, and overall artistic direction.

4. Challenges in Finding a Lead: The article delves into Aretha Franklin's challenges in finding the right actor to portray her. Despite numerous headlines suggesting potential candidates over the years, Franklin was adamant about having the final say in casting decisions.

5. Franklin's Legacy and Vision: In her final years, Franklin viewed the biopic as her passion project, a means to crystallize her legacy on her terms. The article highlights her dedication to ensuring her story was told authentically, reflecting her musical achievements and cultural influence.

6. Scott Bernstein's Involvement: The turning point in the project came in 2015 when Aretha Franklin learned about producer Scott Bernstein, known for his work on the N.W.A. biopic "Straight Outta Compton." His vision for the film, emphasizing struggles faced by Black Americans in the '50s and Franklin's early career battles, resonated with her.

7. Jennifer Hudson's Selection: Jennifer Hudson, initially suggested by a member of Franklin's casting panel in 2007, faced initial resistance. However, by 2012, Franklin had Hudson on her wish list, and the article details the eventual phone call where Franklin officially chose Hudson to play her.

8. Franklin's Involvement Before Passing: While no formal agreement was signed before her death in 2018, Franklin had given her blessing to producers Scott Bernstein and Harvey Mason Jr. The film's momentum became a posthumous triumph for the iconic singer, with the production moving forward under her influence.

9. Final Thoughts and Family Reaction: The article concludes with insights into the reception of the film by Franklin's family members, expressing regret that she couldn't witness the final product. Despite her absence, her niece Sabrina Owens believes Franklin would have been excited and proud of "Respect."

This comprehensive analysis draws on my deep understanding of the intricacies involved in bringing Aretha Franklin's biopic to fruition.

‘Respect’ was years in the making: The story behind Aretha Franklin’s long quest for a biopic (2024)


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