Jennifer Hudson was “born” to play Aretha, but will the role be made for her?

(December 24, 2019).  A 45-second trailer of the film Respect was released earlier this week, starring Grammy and Oscar-winning singer/actress Jennifer Hudson as the legendary Aretha Franklin.

It’s a role that the late Queen of Soul approved before her death in August 2018, one that many fans feel Jennifer was born to play.

Jennifer Hudson (left) and the late Aretha Franklin

Of course, with a stamp of approval from the likes of Ms. Franklin, no further endorsement was really needed – whether it be from those in the Queen’s immediate circle of family and friends, or from bloggers like yours truly who will take our Aretha biopic in any form Her Majesty deemed appropriate.

Watch the just-released trailer of Respect, starring Jennifer Hudson.

But there is a lot riding on this motion picture, which is set for release in October 2020, and there will be a lot of pressure on the 38-year-old Chicago-based singer who stars in the lead role.  

Make no mistake, as her awards will attest, Jennifer Hudson is no slouch.  She’s a proven actress and singer, so that won’t be an issue.  

No, the pressure will come from elsewhere.  

It will stem from the fact that Jennifer Hudson is already an established star and one with her own bigger-than-life identity.  Thus, her task was not only to play the most legendary soul singer in music history, but to have fans disassociate Jennifer Hudson from the character she portrays. 

It is unlike in recent biopics, like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, where the two main characters – Queen’s Freddie Mercury and Elton John, respectively – were played by relatively unknown actors, or in Mercury’s case, an actor who wasn’t known for his singing (and he didn’t even sing the parts in the movie, like Hudson will be in Respect).

The pressure will also come from the fact that, in May 2020, National Geographic’s own rendition of Aretha’s story, “Genius: Aretha,” will air on television, starring Tony-winning Cynthia Erivo in the lead role.  Thus, Ms. Hudson not only has to portray the most successful female soul singer of a lifetime, but be better at doing it than someone arguably as talented as herself just a few months earlier.

Tony-winning actress Cynthia Erivo will play Aretha in a television biopic in May 2020.

When I think of Jennifer Hudson, I think of Effie White – the show-stealing character she played in Dreamgirls.  Or I think of her recent role as a judge on the reality TV competition show “The Voice” (both the UK and the US versions), one where she could steal the spotlight at the drop of a dime with an impromptu vocal performance, like she did in an episode while singing one of Tom Jones’ classics earlier this year.

It’s sort of like when Diana Ross was chosen to play Billie Holiday in the film Lady Sings the Blues, except, in that case, Holiday didn’t pick the actress, Berry Gordy did.  But the similarities lie in the fact that Ross and Holiday were both big names on very different planes with vastly different styles – both in their personalities and in their singing.  

That’s kind of how I see Hudson and Franklin.  

When I think of Aretha Franklin, I think of regality.  I think of an understated personality – especially in the earlier days – who could give you multiple emotions and feelings in a song without always being over the top.  

In fact, “Respect” may be one of the few songs where Aretha gave you unrelenting brashness from start to finish – her voice rarely dipping below the high octave (and high octane) with which she began the song.

But there were also less in-your-face numbers like “Day Dreaming” “I’m in Love,” and “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do),” which showcased a broader range of singing from Franklin.  They at once exuded calmness and exhilaration.  They were performances where Aretha didn’t have to shout to get her points across – the true mark of a queen whose majesty needn’t be asserted, it was implied.

You saw this regality in her interviews, too, especially later in life when it came to addressing other singers and when Aretha had fewer fucks to give. 

Yes, she could be caustic and biting when she felt like it, snatching the wigs of other (lesser) performers with ease and precision.  But she did so with the kind of subtle backhandedness and cunning that would not only put at ease the interviewer, but likely even the targets of her reproach.

Jennifer Hudson (circa 2010s) and Aretha (circa 1970s)

But Re-Re’s regency predated her flippant era.  Even in the early days, Aretha was the calm before her own storm during public appearances.  

Take her stints on “Soul Train,” where she made several appearances in the 1970s and ‘80s.  In those shows, her interviews with host Don Cornelius were serene and stately, with the Queen often commenting on the technical aspects of the music she was about to perform.  And then she’d follow or precede them with a vocal performance for the ages, often foregoing the lip-syncing that other guest artists did and giving us the real deal.

Back then there wasn’t a need for Aretha to invoke sass and spunk because she was the Queen and everyone knew it.

I haven’t seen Jennifer Hudson in that light yet, and it will take her pulling on her tremendous acting skills to give us the full range of Aretha that fans deserve.  It will require the film’s directors to have ignored the impulse to go full bore with the black-girl sass that Hollywood tends to associate with women of my color – and incorporate Aretha’s more measured traits as well.

It’s already enough that Jennifer Hudson’s distinctive and highly accomplished singing voice will be used in Respect, making it tough for fans to separate her style from Aretha’s, but that daunting task was one of which I’m sure the actress and filmmakers were aware when they took on this project.

If they can pull it off – and make moviegoers relive the fullness of Queen Aretha all over again – then it’s Oscar time for Ms. Hudson – and the Respect filmmakers, too!

DJRob

Jennifer Hudson will likely be an Oscar contender in 2021 for Respect.

DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.

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