August 17, 2021
Melinda Head

Aretha Biopic: “Respect”

Jennifer Hudson Pays Homage to Lady Soul

The much-anticipated biopic, “Respect”, starring Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin, premiered across North America on Friday. It achieved a domestic box office gross of $8.8 million in its first weekend, coming in at No. 4.

The No. 1 movie was “Free Guy”, starring Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer, with $28.4 million in ticket sales. The horror sequel “Don’t Breathe 2” and Disney’s “Jungle Cruise” barely edged out “Respect”. But let’s be frank, there was no competition for “Respect” – it has nothing in common with these frivolous movies.

Not surprisingly, “Respect” ticket buyers were 48% African American, 66% female and the vast majority was over 25. Rotten Tomatoes audiences gave the film a 94% score, while the expert Tomatometer was more reserved in its rating.

If you’re interested in American history, pop, soul, jazz or R&B, the Civil Rights Movement, the Feminist Movement and arguably the most accomplished female musician in U.S. history, “Respect” is for you.

Have you ever watched “American Idol”? It’s hard to believe that Jennifer Hudson only placed seventh in the talent show (she was later hand-picked by Aretha to play her in “Respect”), but that’s all history now. You go girl!!! And congrats to the incredible women behind the film, “Respect”:  Director Liesl Tommy, Writers Callie Khouri and Tracey Scott Wilson, Executive Producer Sue Baden-Powell (among others), and Editor Avril Beukes.

Some facts about Aretha:

  • She was born in Memphis, but spent most of her childhood in Detroit
  • Her mother was a piano player and vocalist who worked in a music store, gave private music lessons and trained to be a nurse’s aid. Her father became a successful gospel-singing Baptist minister whose numerous infidelities strained his marriage
  • When her parents split up, grade-school aged Aretha continued to live with her father and sang in his choir
  • Her mother died of a heart attack at age 34, when Aretha was not quite 10 years old. Also, sadly, many years later her father was robbed at home, shot and eventually died
  • Aretha had a child at 12 years old and another at 14. She had 4 sons in total with multiple partners, and was divorced twice
  • She was an autodidact (self-taught), who did not know how to read music and dropped out of high school in her sophomore year. At a later age, she dreamed of studying piano at Julliard
  • She had a vocal range of 4 octaves at her peak (between G2 and E6), a voice that would be described as mostly mezzo-soprano. The mezzo-soprano voice usually has a heavier, darker tone than sopranos, which resonates in a higher range than that of a contralto. Other current famous mezzo-sopranos include Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Christina Aguilera, Ariana Grande and Adele. Aretha once stepped in for Luciano Pavarotti after he fell ill, with less than a few minutes of advance notice, performing Puccini’s 1926 “Nessun Dorma” aria from the posthumously completed opera, Turandot:

  • Her discography includes 42 studio albums, 6 live albums and 131 singles, with more than 75 million albums sold in her lifetime
  • She received 44 Grammy nominations and won 18 Grammy awards, in addition to being honored with a Grammys Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995
  • She held 13 honorary degrees from a variety of institutions including Harvard, Princeton, Yale and the Berklee College of Music

Her most famous song is undoubtedly “Respect” (1967):

  • Originally written and performed by Otis Redding. He died in a plane crash at age 26, the same year Aretha’s cover of his song hit the charts

  • “Respect” was a single from the album “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You”, her first album with the Atlantic label after leaving Columbia

  • Aretha made ”Respect” her own, including gospel-style piano, the spelling out of R-E-S-P-E-C-T, and the addition of “sock it to me” and “just a little bit” riffs
  • Vocals were performed by her step-sisters, Carolyn and Erma
  • The album was recorded at the infamous Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama, and finished in New York City

  • The song came at the right time, during the Civil Rights and Feminist Movements, both of which adopted her rendition of “Respect” to help emphasize their messages

“It [reflected] the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher—everyone wanted respect. It was also one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement. The song took on monumental significance.” (Aretha Franklin)

“Whether it was due to the new arrangement, Franklin’s voice, or the fact that she’s a woman, Franklin’s version seems to have a greater urgency to it than Redding’s did. Franklin brings to the song all her soul and gospel fervor. As music historian Dave Marsh states, “She knows exactly where the song is headed and propels it there with single-minded intensity. There’s not a ‘Hey baby’ or a ‘Mis-tuh!’ that’s accidental. Had Aretha not been trained in the church, she’d never have known what to do here.” And as “Time” magazine noted, “What really accounts for her impact goes beyond technique; it is her fierce, gritty conviction. She flexes her rich, cutting voice like a whip; she lashes her listeners—in her words—‘to the bone, for deepness.’” (Library of Congress)

  • In 2002 the Library of Congress added “Respect” to the National Recording Registry, cementing it in history forever. Each year, only 25 recordings are chosen to showcase and preserve the range and diversity of American recorded sound heritage

A woman of many firsts

  • Aretha was the first African American entertainer to appear on the cover of Time Magazine, a big thing back in 1968 and, at that time, she was also only the second black woman to ever flank its cover

  • Aretha was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 (it’s hard to believe it took so long)
  • She performed at the inaugurations of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, at the funerals of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, and for Pope Francis

An end and a beginning

Aretha had a long career with a complex life that gave her a lot to think about and which, undoubtedly, in addition to her incredible natural talent, made her the icon she became. Aretha died from pancreatic cancer at age 76.

“Aretha’s death reminds us of a time when giants roamed the earth.”

“Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R. & B., rock and roll — the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope. American history wells up when Aretha sings. That's why, when she sits down at a piano and sings 'A Natural Woman,' she can move me to tears — the same way that Ray Charles's version of 'America the Beautiful' will always be, in my view, the most patriotic piece of music ever performed — because it captures the fullness of the American experience, the view from the bottom as well as the top, the good and the bad, and the possibility of synthesis, reconciliation, transcendence.” (Barack Obama)

An asteroid was named after Aretha by NASA’s Amy Mainzer. “249156 Aretha” orbits between Mars and Jupiter, constantly moving across a tapestry of stars. What a suitable place to be immortalized in the company of asteroids named for Rosa Parks (the first lady of civil rights), abolitionists Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, and Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Malala Yousafzai. Aretha, when we look up at the universe, we will be thinking of you … always.

The Atlantic Article - An Asteroid Named Aretha

Oh, one more thing, Aretha and on a lighter note. Good news, you are already inspiring the next generation:

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About the Author

A serial entrepreneur, Melinda is a sociologist and statistician who believes there is no currency with greater value than knowledge

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