Respect long overdue: behind Aretha Franklin’s quest for a biopic

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

For several years, the Detroit 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.”

The biopic Respect, starring Jennifer Hudson as the Queen of Soul’s sanctioned leading lady, will at last hit theatres on August 19, 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 happen because she wanted it to happen,” said her niece Sabrina Owens.

Determined to crystallise her legacy in her own way, the Detroit star worked for nearly 20 years 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.

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 talks with an unnamed production group, Franklin told the Detroit Free Press 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.”

Two summers later, she told the Free Press about another round of soured negotiations, this time with “a group of former William Morris agents”. Again, the stickler was creative control, namely casting. But she remained resolute.

“When one negotiation is stalled, we’ll move on to the others,” Franklin said.

To some outsiders, her mission might have seemed chaotic, even naive, as she publicly touted actor selections for a movie that wasn’t even off the ground.

“But Aretha was astute about arts and culture. She knew these people’s work,” Quinn said. “They were people with certain similarities that interested her. It could have been a personal connection, or something in an actor who reminded her of a certain character. She wasn’t just doing this off a whim. There was always a depth and thoughtfulness to it.”

Detroiter Greg Dunmore, a close friend of Franklin, says 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 to art for art’s sake.

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

Still, one Hollywood veteran privy to Franklin’s dealings says that for all her drive, a Queen of Soul biopic was unlikely to have materialised while she was here: The deeply private singer would 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 says. “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 jnr, who had a story outline and talked regularly with the singer.

Bernstein had described to Franklin in an early phone call 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”. “You’re the queen,” he told her. “But we all have struggled. We all have to fight our demons.”

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

MGM was in the picture and, earlier that year, record mogul and Franklin confidant Clive Davis announced that Hudson was locked down for the lead role.

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.”

By 2019, Tommy was enlisted as director, and shooting began in September.

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 bestseller. 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 her because we started dealing with it regularly.”

From the ’90s onward, following the death of her brother and manager Cecil, Franklin had kept no full-time management. Instead, she relied on a tight circle of family and friends as sounding boards and advisers.

Among them was Quinn, who had worked closely with the singer during their time at Arista Records. Franklin hired her as media rep when Quinn formed her own firm in 2002.

With colleague Robyn Ryland-Sanders, Quinn was part media consultant, part personal assistant for Franklin, often fielding her calls several times a day. The professional bond with Aretha grew into a genuine friendship.

But Franklin was still the Queen of Soul.

“If you messed up, there ain’t nobody to hear from but her. She was going to be straight-up and tell you what she thought,” Quinn said, laughing. “You always knew where you stood. And that’s what I liked about her. There was nothing phony about the relationship.”

That bond proved fruitful as Quinn helped Franklin navigate certain corners of showbiz, gathering contacts and setting up meetings with key players.

Franklin initially set out to take her story to the stage. She shared a love of Broadway with the New York-based Quinn, who frequently arranged tickets to shows and connected with her theatre-world figures such as Marsha Norman (The Colour Purple), Stephen C. Byrd and Alia Jones-Harvey (Front Row Productions).

“She loved working with and supporting Black creators,” Quinn said. “She always wanted to hear who was out there doing things that she needed to know.”

In spring 2007, Franklin hosted three days of auditions at the Hawthorne Suites in Southfield, welcoming actors and singers from across the country for a musical to be based on From These Roots. 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 contestant 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 Tower and 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 Detroit star emphasised in interviews that year.

Franklin was also impressed by McDonald after catching Porgy and Bess on Broadway, sending flowers to the classically trained singer.

“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.”

(McDonald would wind up playing the singer’s mother, Barbara Franklin, in Respect. )

Franklin met separately in 2012 with directors Tate Taylor (The Help) and Taylor Hackford (Ray). Impressed by the latter, Franklin asked him to work up a film treatment.

Dealings with Hackford continued for some time, said Quinn: “Aretha really liked him for sure.”

But that partnership eventually petered out, too.

A breakthrough at last

Franklin’s biopic hopes finally started to gain real 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.”

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

During Compton production, Mason raised the idea that they collaborate with Franklin on her biopic. Bernstein was immediately intrigued.

“I got home and went back to my records — real vinyl —and went online. To do her justice, I had to know what the story is,” Bernstein recounted. “The next day I said, ‘Let’s talk to Ms Franklin’. I had an idea of what the story could be.”

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 which Bernstein laid out his vision for a film.

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.

“She felt in a comfortable place with Scott Bernstein. She had talked to a lot of people, and that was the last person we discussed,” said Quinn. “Those conversations went very well for her. Because I didn’t hear about anybody else after that.”

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 cognisant that she has four sons, and she wanted them to be proud of this,” Bernstein said. “That was first and foremost. They might not be the stars of this, but their fathers and their mother are.”

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.

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.

“I really just want to thank Scott Bernstein for delivering what she asked him to do,” said cousin and former backing singer Brenda Corbett. “I believe in my heart that he did exactly that. I’m proud of him, I’m proud of the movie, and I miss my cousin so much that it’s unreal. But I believe he delivered for her.”

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 on because 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.”

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