Cynthia Erivo has been nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of Aretha Franklin in the series Genius: Aretha, and now another Aretha Franklin performance could contend during award season – Jennifer Hudson plays Aretha in Respect, which opens this Friday. Aretha herself wanted Jennifer to play her which is both an honour and also…well…imagine the responsibility? This is Aretha Franklin we’re talking about. ARETHA FRANKLIN. That had to have been on Jennifer’s mind every day on set.
The film covers Aretha’s life from when she was just 10 years old up to when she was 30, chronicling the lead-up to the recording of her most successful album, and the album considered one of the great albums of all time, period, across any genre, Amazing Grace. Which was recorded live over two nights at New Temple Baptist Mission Church in Los Angeles in January 1972 with a live audience (that included Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts). Both the album and the recording of it are considered historic achievements. This was Aretha singing the music that shaped her sound, alongside the Reverend James Cleveland, known as the King of Gospel, and the Southern California Community Choir. So, clearly, Respect is about building Aretha’s story up to that moment, those two nights in that church in LA, where she delivered one of the most exhilarating live performances of all time, in a career that is basically only all-time performances.
But if you’ve seen Amazing Grace, the documentary about the recording of that album, finally released in 2018 after decades of technical and personal issues, you’d understand. So if you haven’t already, before you watch Respect, or maybe after, because you’ll be curious, turn on your surround speakers, set aside an hour and a half, and watch Amazing Grace. But be ready for Aretha to take your entire night.
Because it’s a transcendent experience, no exaggeration. Aretha was singing from a different place on those two nights. Or, maybe, it was a divine force that was singing THROUGH her. Like, I wouldn’t consider myself a spiritual person but watching her in this precious footage, even I felt the Spirit of something greater. As did the congregation.
That’s part of the joy of the film – seeing the audience practically levitate from the beauty of her voice, and her energy, her devotion. And if this is unmistakably obvious as a viewer, all these years later, can you imagine what it must have been like for the people who were there? Everyone from the people sitting in the pews to the musicians performing behind her, they were overcome by her gift. When they weep from the power of her voice, an instrument of heaven, it is evidence of the celestial, for believers and non-believers both, it is a portal to the Promised Land. Again, this is not hyperbole. You’ll know this when you see it. And you should if you’re going to see Respect.
To go back to Jennifer Hudson, then, that was her challenge on this film. To embody Aretha Franklin, the woman, the artist, the messenger. By all accounts, while reviews of the film range from B to B+, word so far is that she certainly delivers. Just like Aretha knew she would.
Here she is at the premiere last night in sparkly purple with a matching… veil! I love a veil. And we don’t see them enough outside of weddings. So is this the beginning of red carpet veils? I mean, obviously, you can’t just veil on any red carpet. It has to be a MAJOR red carpet. For Jennifer, to premiere a film in which she stars as Aretha Franklin, that is more than enough of an occasion. But what about the Emmys? And or the Oscars? Can we get some veil action at those events?