Jennifer Hudson had plenty of time to think about how to portray Aretha Franklin on screen. In 2007, shortly after Hudson won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress – for the role of girl group singer in “Dreamgirls” – Franklin told Hudson to play her in a biopic and began a decades-long friendship of weekly conversations.

Like Franklin, Hudson grew up singing in church and poured gospel virtuosity into pop songs. And like Franklin, whose mother died of a heart attack at the age of 34, Hudson suffered a sudden, devastating loss: her mother, brother, and nephew were murdered in Chicago in 2008. In her career, Hudson has repeatedly paid tribute to Franklin, using a Franklin song for her “American Idol” audition in 2004 to singing “Amazing Grace” at Franklin’s funeral in 2018. Now Hudson plays Franklin in the biopic “Respect “Which hits theaters this week.

“Every artist, every musician has to meet Aretha, especially if you want to be great,” said Hudson in a video interview from Chicago, where she lives; her gray cat Macavity was sneaking around in the background. “She was always present in my life in some form, even if I didn’t know it.”

When Hudson explained the choices that went into her performance, she said that through the film, she understood how much Franklin was a “blueprint”. “Our church music was based entirely on her. The ‘Amazing Grace’ I sang in church is from their ‘Amazing Grace’ album. I only noticed that while researching the film. “

Hudson, 39, is both the star and executive producer of Respect. The film traces Franklin’s life from her childhood – as a singing miracle singing in church alongside her father, the eminent Reverend Clarence L. Franklin – through her pregnancy at 12, her frustrating years singing jazz standards at Columbia Records to her triumphant rise as Queen of Soul at Atlantic Records, and the pressure and drinking that threatened everything she had accomplished. The story ends in 1972 with Franklin reclaiming her ecclesiastical heritage to record her groundbreaking live gospel album, Amazing Grace.

“Respect” is the first film by Liesl Tommy, who was born during apartheid in South Africa and has worked extensively in the theater directing newly conceived classics and politically charged new plays such as “Eclipsed” about women during the civil war in Liberia. (She was nominated Tony for Best Director for this production.) To write the script for Respect, Tommy brought in playwright Tracey Scott Wilson, whose grandfather was a preacher.

“When I came up with my idea for the film,” Tommy said on the phone from Los Angeles, “it should start in church and end in church. The subject of the film was the woman with the greatest voice in the world struggling to find her voice. I wanted to know how a person sings with such emotional intensity.

“Lots of people have brilliant voices,” she continued, “but she’s the only one who delivers songs the way she does. I don’t think you will become the queen of the soul if it is easy for you. There was a lived experience that made it possible for her to sing like that. “

Franklin was celebrated again after her death in 2018. The long-postponed concert film that was made when the album “Amazing Grace” was recorded was finally released this year. And National Geographic dedicated an entire season to Franklin’s TV series “Genius” with Cynthia Erivo in the title role. “Aretha Franklin lived a life that could fit many, many versions of many stories about her,” said Tommy. “She deserves it.”

“Respect” contrasts the personal and political currents of Franklin’s career: Forging a feminist hymn with “Respect” while dealing with an abusive husband, regularly with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. appears and controversial personalities like the Black Power activist supports Angela Davis. In one of the roughest scenes, Franklin sings at King’s funeral. “Imagine you were Aretha Franklin in this era and Dr. King, who she was so close to, is being murdered, ”said Hudson. “Imagine the suffering and pain she went through. But in her position she still had to be that person to be the light in such a dark time. This is difficult.”

Still, Hudson and Tommy were determined to put Franklin’s music at the center of the film. “Everyone says, ‘We’ve never seen a biopic with so much music that you can hear the songs in,'” said Hudson. “This is not a musical. It’s a biopic about artists, musicians. But I can’t think of a biopic or musical that was made that way. “

As executive producer, Hudson said, “I wanted to make sure the right songs were in the movie. I wanted ‘Ain’t No Way’. When I’m just an actor I can’t really have my say, but it’s like, ‘I’m sorry, but we can’t do this unless’ Ain’t No Way ‘is part of it.’ “

In an extensive recording studio sequence, Aretha’s sisters Carolyn and Erma Franklin all sing the backup vocals – not Cissy Houston, whose wordless soprano counterpoint transfigures the song. “That’s part of the artistic license,” said Tommy. “You can only have so many characters. You have to stay focused. “

To create immediacy, Hudson delivered Franklin’s appearances on stage by singing live in front of the camera – not lip-synchronizing, not synchronizing into the vocals afterwards. “I wanted to experience it the way she did in her life,” said Hudson. “Whatever we’ve been re-enacting and re-enacting in their lives, if it was live, it’s like, ‘Well, let’s do it live.’ ‘Amazing Grace’ was live. ‘Ain’t No Way’ was live. We will sing ‘Natural Woman’ live. So it could be authentic for what was really in her life. “

Franklin was an accomplished gospel pianist and singer, her skills forged in church as a child. She supported her early, commercially unsuccessful albums for Columbia with acclaimed jazz musicians and lavish orchestral arrangements. It was elegant, but old-fashioned by the 1960s.

Her return to the piano was a catalyst for her indelible Atlantic hits, which defined the groove with ecclesiastical foundations and built a visceral call and response between her fingers and her voice. Hudson began learning the piano after a career in which he worked exclusively as a singer. “It was an actor’s choice to say, ‘I can’t play Aretha Franklin without learning some piano,'” said Hudson. “And now, when I’m learning music, I don’t just look at the top line, the melody line, the vocal line. I’m considering it as an arranger. What key is that in? How is the progress?”

Hudson also considered how to reinterpret Franklin’s songs. Their voices are different: Hudson’s is higher and clearer, Franklin’s bluesier and rougher, and Hudson wanted to emulate Franklin without copying her. “I used her approach and just allowed everything she did on me as I used her inflections and different nuances,” said Hudson. “It was more about feeling than it was about matching the grades.”

Despite their years of conversations, Hudson Franklin still had to research. “Aretha wasn’t a person who talked too much except through music,” she said. “I know from my experiences around them that I used to be like that, I can’t really tell where I am. She didn’t give you much. ”So Hudson set out to understand the era she was raised in and other circumstances to get a feel for what it was like to be a woman back then. “I literally noticed in the middle of the scenes that the things she was telling me speak from experience. Her greatest expression was through her music – and that was real. “