MGM brings the life and career of a musical icon to the big screen.
Jennifer Hudson takes on the imposing real life role of the legendary Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin in this week’s new release Respect. The movie, directed by Liesl Tommy and written by Tracey Scott Wilson, follows Franklin from her childhood singing in a church choir through the early days of her career. It also covers the personal upheavals that were part of her life in that period, including what turned out to be an abusive marriage as well as her involvement in the civil rights movement in the second half of the last century.
casting and development
Hudson has been attempting to bring Franklin’s story to life for a number of years and the project even had the approval of the singer, who was involved in making it happen until she passed away a few years ago. That puts this film in stark contrast to the latest season of “Genius”, the anthology series on National Geographic, which has been denounced by Franklin’s family because they weren’t involved in that production. Cynthia Erivo portrayed Franklin in that series.
Over the course of 2019 Forest Whitaker and Audra McDonald were cast as Franklin’s parents while Marlon Wayans was brought on to play her first husband and Mary J. Blige as Dinah Washington, a pioneer in the genres Franklin would later dominate.
first marketing steps
A brief teaser – no footage, just Franklin singing the title song on stage – was released in late December 2019 to get things started.
The first poster (by marketing agency Concept Arts) came out at the same time and shows a long view of Franklin on a brightly lit stage. It’s the same basic visual aesthetic as the teaser, creating some nice consistency as the campaign kicks off.
It was June 2020 before the first full trailer came out. It’s fairly short but offers glimpses at the big beats of the story, from Franklin’s early struggles to her rise as an outspoken and unapologetic superstar. It’s surprising, though, how glitzed up the title song is here, as if the original isn’t powerful enough to stand on its own without a ton of additional production and layering.
Another poster came out then showing a closer look at Hudson as Franklin sporting her finest hairstyle and in her most luxurious coat. The light mint green of both the coat and the background set a 50s/60s vibe while the “The Queen arrives” copy makes it clear this is a story that doesn’t lack in ambition or self-confidence.
Late in the month Hudson appeared virtually at the BET Awards, performing an incredible rendition of Franklin’s “Young Black and Gifted.” The trailer was also aired as an extended ad during that broadcast.
A handful of new images from the movie debuted in Essence around that time as well.
Hudson discussed the movie as well as the imposing situation of portraying such a well-known singer on “Good Morning America” in September of that year. She was also named to Time’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020.
In a move that’s very much in-line with Franklin’s work for civil rights decades ago, Hudson and Wayans posted videos encouraging people to register to vote in what at the time were the upcoming elections. Future efforts in this portion of the campaign continued to come out through October and November, including contributions from Tommy and others.
Tommy discussed the movie in a virtual panel during 2020’s Mill Valley Film Festival in Octoer of that year.
EW featured a cover story package on the film in October that featured photos and interviews with most of the cast and crew.
Originally scheduled for release in December of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic wound up delaying the movie, first just to January 2021 and then all the way to its current Augus release date. That final announcement was made in October of last year.
With that in place the marketing took a couple months off. Still, Hudson appeared on “Today” in February to talk about the movie and a Black History Month initiative she was undertaking with Mastercard – one of the movie’s promotional partner brands – focused on supporting Black small business owners. And musician Kris Bowers was interviewed about composing the film’s score.
let’s try this again
The campaign began ramping back up in May when Hudson stopped by “GMA” again to celebrate Franklin’s legacy and debut the final trailer.
That trailer starts off with a young Franklin getting a lesson both in singing and in life from her mother. When she’s older she’s seen by others as a genius but it’s not until she finds the songs she can truly connect to that her career takes off. But her personal life is less than perfect, even as she attains the kind of fame and notoriety she’s worked hard for.
The next poster shows Franklin performing with the copy “Find out what it means to me” overlaid on the photo. It’s not bad and continues the theme of focusing on Hudson as Franklin in mid-performance.
The Queen has arrived. Jennifer Hudson is Aretha Franklin in #RespectMovie – In theaters August 13. https://t.co/TI6OciX4zi—
RESPECT: The Aretha Franklin Movie (@RespectMovie) May 19, 2021
Tommy was interviewed about casting Hudson, respecting Franklin’s legacy and maintaining a cooperative atmosphere on set.
A video of Hudson reacting to comments and songs from The Queens was released in early June.
Later in the month a featurette came out that focused on Hudson’s transformation into the character of the real-life Franklin.
News came in late June that the movie would screen at the Locarno International Film Festival in August.
now with more songs
“Here I Am”, the original song from Hudson and cowriter Carole King that plays over the movie’s end credits, was released in mid-July. The two would later be interviewed together about the process of writing that song as well as Franklin’s enduring legacy and influence.
Hudson’s performances of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” came out in this period as well.
Around the same time commercials started coming out that recapped the story in 30 seconds, focusing on Hudson’s performance and her singing, of course.
Fandango MovieClips released an exclusive featurette with Hudson and others talking about Franklin’s impact on the world and the people around her came out in mid-July. Fandango also announced early screenings scheduled for the second week of August, an attempt to get word of mouth started before the release date. Fandango also had a brief teaser from Hudson sharing her approach to staying true to Franklin’s legacy.
Franklin performs “Respect” in front of a concert crowd in the first clip that came out in late July. Another clip shows Franklin and others noodling around with the rough version of what would later become that signature tune.
In late July the Wright Museum in Detroit hosted a massive mural of Hudson Franklin to celebrate the singer and promote the upcoming movie. That mural was created by students from the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences, with the process of making it captured in a short video.
Hudson and Wayans appear in a short video explaining how to demand respect from those around you as well as in awkward social situations.
More interviews with Hudson continued to come out over the last few weeks covering how she dove into playing Franklin, working with the singer on developing this movie for years and more. She was even interviewed by Oprah.
Wayans also got the occasional profile and interview about taking on a dramatic role and working with Hudson. Similarly there were also interviews with McDonald about the music and life of Franklin. Tommy and others spoke about staying true to both the singer’s life and her music. Wayans also appeared on “The Tonight Show” and “GMA” to talk about the movie.
The premiere was held in Los Angeles last week with the cast and crew in attendance.
More clips offered glimpses at a performance of “Think” (though not the filming of The Blues Brothers) and other scenes.
Hudson performed with Jon Baptiste on “The Late Show”.
Steinway & Sons, the movie’s other major brand partner, announced just recently that it was auctioning off a specially-designed piano, with the proceeds designated for Hudson’s charitable foundation.
You have to admire how, from the very beginning, the campaign went all-in on Hudson’s connection with Franklin and her commitment to honoring the late singer’s life and legacy. That’s been the central message of the entire marketing push from the moment production began back in mid-2019 right up through the conclusion.
Unfortunately initial reviews haven’t been overly positive, leading to a 64% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Most don’t fault Hudson’s performance as the Queen of Soul, though, instead focusing on the movie failing to break out of the biopic routines. But the messaging has been so earnest and the targeting of key moments in the campaign has been so finely-tuned that those lackluster reviews may not mean much.
While the story focused on Franklin’s early years, it’s worth noting here that she lost nary a step later in life. As proof of that, we’ll finish off with her 2015 Kennedy Center Honors performance of Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” including her shedding her coat like warrior shedding bulky armor before entering the field of battle.