Respect Remembers Aretha Franklin's Life, But Music Makes It Sing

Respect Remembers Aretha Franklin's Life, But Music Makes It Sing

The aching notes rumbling with hurt, the nasal whines demanding attention and autonomy — Aretha Franklin’s music is ubiquitous, with instantly recognizable hits like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Organic Woman” and “Chain of Fools,” as is her lasting legacy of racial advocacy. However perhaps lesser known today is how the singer with one of the best voices in the world struggled for years to truly hone it. That’s the story told in the biopic Respect, out Friday (August 20), which centers the formative first three decades of Franklin’s life and career. “Her childhood through her twenties, to basically while she turned 30, felt like a powerful period,” director Liesl Tommy tells MTV News over Zoom. “I thought a lot about what the phrase ‘Queen of Soul’ means. What does ‘soul’ mean in this context? How do you become the queen of soul?”

To answer that question, Tommy, a South Africa-born director making her feature-film debut, looked to the church. That’s where Franklin, the daughter of a Baptist minister, first started singing publicly. It’s also where she would return in 1972 to record Amazing Grace, a live gospel album with choral backing that earned her a Grammy and became the bestselling disc of Franklin’s decades-long career. This provides the bookends for Respect, between which are the circumstances that imbued her sound with its decadent layers: her pregnancy at 12 years old, the domestic abuse she survived and overcame, however also her involvement in the civil rights movement and, later, her triumphant Madison Square Garden premier. “She had this intensity of storytelling that she sang with,” Tommy describes. “It really captured my imagination.”

If you’re Jennifer Hudson, who stars, you could find the response on stage. The role was made for the actress — literally, in the sense that Franklin personally chose her for the part right after her Academy Award-winning efficiency in 2006’s Dreamgirls. However Hudson, who sang “Amazing Grace” at Franklin’s funeral in 2018, brings her own soulful virtuosity to the efficiency, and much of the singing that can be heard in the film was delivered live on set. “You understand why Aretha Franklin chose her, because she has a vocal gift that is God-given, the way that Aretha's was,” Tommy says. “It was sort of astounding to watch happen, plus it put a spell on everybody all of the time.” Ahead of the premiere of Respect, director Tommy unpacks what can be gleaned from revisiting Franklin’s story in full context.

MTV News: Growing up in South Africa and later moving To America, what was your relationship with Aretha Franklin as an icon, as a musician?

Liesl Tommy: I come from culture plus a family member that listened to music all of the time. I don't really know of a time any time Once I didn't know about Aretha Franklin's music. Once I was conscious, I heard it playing. And I became obsessed with her at a very, very young age. I loved her and Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, and strangely, even in South Africa, Patsy Cline. I used to love to dress up and choreograph numbers for my cousins Once I was a little bit girl, and she was just somebody who routinely felt like it needed to be a solo. She needed one individual singing their face off. And as I was thinking about what this film should be, I wanted to tell a story about how you become a woman who sings with such emotional intensity.

MTV News: Why did you determine to take this project on? And how now?

Tommy: I came originally from the theater, and I feel very connected to stories with music. Also, it's Aretha Franklin, and I just felt like I would perish to portray her legacy on screen. And then also, segment of what I'm interested in doing as a filmmaker is creating space for girls and girls of color, and basically, marginalized people who don't visualize themselves in major motion photos. So normally, a movie like this could be written and directed by, probably two white guys. Most major biopics, it's the territory of, frankly, the white male, and I just feel like it's time for different perspective as well as a different gaze.

MTV News: How do you feel your gaze, as a woman of color, changed how this story was told?

Tommy: I have a strong point of view about shoot why as well as how to convey violence. I have a strong point of view about how to shoot and convey women's emotional trauma. I think there really is a way to tell those stories along with protect females, and not re-traumatize my audience. I feel like, Whenever I watch films written and directed by boys, violence is a fun tool for them. However for a lot of us, violence isn't a fun tool. And thus I am interested in how we can be gritty, how it could be real, however how we can also love our crowds and care for them.

Quantrell D. Colbert
MTV News: Is there any particular approach in the filmography and why you shoot the violence?

Tommy: The cinematographer and I spoken about it at span. In terms of the scenes with her hubby, I never wanted to show her actually getting punched or hit or anything like that. That was really essential to me. And thus we spent time structuring scenes to understand the threat of violence without having to actually visualize a hand land on her face.

MTV News: How much of what's in the movie is new sound design, how much is taken from Aretha's own recordings, and why much of it is Jennifer Hudson?

Tommy: I wanted each and every person who'd to sing in this film have the ability to sing live on screen, on set. Most of them of the music that you hear in the film is music that was recorded live on set. Everybody sang, and Jennifer sang song, each and every day on set.

And then there were other people on set who'd to sing, the females who played the backup singers, the woman who played her mother, Audra McDonald, Heather Headley. These are all Tony-winning, Tony-nominated actresses and singers. Tituss Burgess, everybody who'd to sing is at the best of their game vocally. And I just think it brought power and an intensity to the musical performances the way that maybe lip-syncing or something that was done in a studio wouldn't. Coming from a musical theater background, I know the power of live performances of songs.

MTV News: I loved all of the scenes any time she's riffing in the Alabama studios. It's so different from her stuffy Columbia Records experience with a full orchestra.

Tommy: I know, right? It's so crazy — people in suits and ties in the studio, making music. And then you go down to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where you could smell everybody. It’s a whole other vibe.

MTV News: There’s this lovely scene in the film where Aretha is developing her take on “Respect” with her sisters. They’re all sitting at the piano in her apartment in Harlem, and then it suddenly cuts to Madison Square Garden where she's performing in full glamour, looking astonishing, singing “sock it to me, sock it to me.” Why did you pick to frame the film around that song? 

Tommy: Well, that song, needless to say, is one of her biggest hits. However also, I think it's a cute representation of her journey. This movie is about a woman with the greatest voice in the world who is struggling to find her voice. Segment of that is to be a woman, and for her, a woman of that specific time period. She had to go on a journey as a woman of the '50s and '60s to find her personalized power, and to have respect for herself, and then to ultimately demand respect. There's a reason why she loved that song, and how she wanted to sing that song. It was true to her story.

Quantrell D. Colbert
MTV News: Probably a lot of folks don't know that “Respect” was originally a Otis Redding song. While doing statistics for this project, was there anything you discovered about Aretha that surprised you?

Tommy: The fact that she had children at a young age isn’t something I knew in advance of working on the film. I thought that was pretty powerful, a young girl who was just attempting to identify who she was as a person. Although also the depth of her civil rights work, which began as a little bit girl going on tour with her father, and then later going on tour with Martin Luther King Jr. That was so powerful and clearly formative because she stayed political her whole life.

MTV News: Some of the scenes are shot as if they were archival footage. At Martin Luther King Jr.’S funeral, as an example, it looks like it's being shot through a newscast. What was the thinking in back of that technique?

Tommy: Artistically, I was fascinated by what it seemed like to live under that distinct microscope. Even if she is breaking apart with grief at the funeral, there were cameras on her the whole time. I wanted to show that piece of being a superstar is that your life is being recorded. You're exposed.

MTV News: Do you have a preference scene?

Tommy: I think the scene that I love the most in the movie is the recording of “Ain't No Way,” because her sister Carolyn wrote it for her. And not a lot of people know this, however it is a secret gay anthem. Carolyn was a lesbian. There really are so several levels of storytelling happening in that scene, because there's the connection between her and her sisters, where she's basically making her sister's dream come true by recording her song. That's also one of my main go to songs, and I like that there's a little bit secret in there for people who will get it.

MTV News: What about Aretha’s story felt previously innumerable before this film?

Tommy: What I thought was astonishing was that she had four or five albums into her early pop career that were not popular. She had a journey like millions of other musicians, where she was working her face off making albums, some days two in per year. I think it's inspiring for all of us to know that everybody has to go on a journey, everybody has to experience failure.

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