Respect director Leisl Tommy on adapting Aretha Franklin true story for the big screen

Tommy speaks to RadioTimes.com about adapting the Queen of Soul's life story.

Respect

Aretha Franklin is the latest music icon to be given the biopic treatment, with Jennifer Hudson starring as the Queen of Soul in new movie Respect.

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The film charts Aretha’s rise from her early days as a little girl singing in the Baptist Church to becoming one of the finest performers the world has ever seen, and includes lots of details about her family life and civil rights activism in addition to her phenomenal musical success.

By and large, the film is pretty accurate in its depiction of her and those around her – though of course a few artistic liberties are taken.

Naturally, it would have been impossible to explore every single aspect of Aretha’s life in detail during the film, and so the biggest problem for director Leisl Tommy – who shaped the narrative alongside screenwriter Tracy Scott Wilson – was condensing this extraordinary life story down to a two-and-a-half-hour runtime.

“You know, it wasn’t easy to narrow down the songs. And it wasn’t easy to narrow down the events,” she told RadioTimes.com. “But because I knew that we were going to finish with Amazing Grace, when I pitched it I said it should begin in the church and end in the church.

“And I knew that I wanted the Amazing Grace album, one of her most successful albums to be kind of like the penultimate, triumphant moment in the film. And so the tagline I gave the studio was that I thought the movie should be about a woman with the greatest voice in the world struggling to find her own voice.

“And once you have that as your spine, then all the sequences and events in the film really must feed that idea. And that’s how you’re able to be rigorous about what goes in the film and what doesn’t get to be in the film.”

Tommy explained that it was especially vital to her to ensure that Aretha’s civil rights activism was at the forefront of the picture, and said that her own experiences growing up in apartheid South Africa informed her choices when making the film.

“I grew up in South Africa, I grew up during apartheid, I grew up in an activist family,” she said. “So, you know, conversations around civil rights, around freedom, around advocacy for our community was formative for me, and it was the same for her.

“And I really connected to that part of her story, I really related to it, so it felt really important to track it from the beginning. Because when she was a teenage girl she was on tour with Martin Luther King, singing gospel music, getting people ready to go out on the streets and demonstrate and protest with him. So she was using her voice as an inciting force when she was a girl. And so that seemed really important to highlight.”

Most of Aretha’s biggest hits are included during the film’s runtime – including Respect, Think, and I Say A Little Prayer For You – but another difficult part of writing the film was working which tracks made the cut and which didn’t, and Tommy explained that one or two of the songs that were initially recorded for the film didn’t quite make the final movie.

“I got the main ones for sure,” she said. “And I got some of my favourites like Ain’t No Way. But we did shoot a pretty extraordinary scene where she sings Dr. Feelgood in the studio. And in the end, it just didn’t make the cut for all the millions of reasons you make [decisions] while you edit things.”

What was absolutely crucial for Tommy during these musical scenes was ensuring that the raw energy of Aretha’s performances was recreated on camera – and one of the ways that she went about ensuring this was insisting that all the performances were sung live, rather than over-dubbed with studio recordings.

“My understanding of music from working on musicals definitely influenced my choices in this film,” she explained. “So for example, I said that everybody was going to have to sing live in this film. So that influenced casting – that’s why I cast Audra McDonald and Heather Headley and Titus Burgess because they all have terrific voices.

“And the actresses who played her sisters are all Tony nominees, Tony-winning actresses, who really can sing. And so understanding the power of the live singing event, knowing that lip-synching was never going to cut it in this film, and that the movie’s sound was going to be made on set live and not in a studio was a big part of it.”

Speaking of casting, one of the easier decisions was deciding who would play the lead role. Franklin herself had singled out Jennifer Hudson as the person she wanted to play her before she passed away, and Tommy said that being able to lean on Hudson took some of the pressure off when it came to making the film.

“Aretha Franklin wanted two things,” she said. “She wanted something that had size and scope, and then she wanted Jennifer Hudson to play her in that movie.

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“And, you know, once I met Jennifer, I 100 per cent saw what Aretha Franklin saw in her, I knew exactly what it was. In addition to the voice, there is just so much humanity that Jennifer brings, and I think Aretha Franklin saw that and knew that that’s what was going to be required to play her because her life was so complicated and complex.”

Respect will be released in UK cinemas on 10th September 2021. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide or visit our Movies hub for more news and features.