How ‘Respect’ Filmmakers Ensured Musical Authenticity for Aretha Franklin Biopic

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Jennifer Hudson likes to call Respect “a biopic about music.” And considering it’s the music of Aretha Franklin, no small effort was made to ensure that the details of it — sonic and visual — were as accurate as possible. “It had to be authentic, because she was authentic,” director Liesl Tommy explained during a recent visit to Franklin’s hometown of Detroit.

Respect, starring Jennifer Hudson as the late Queen of Soul (hand-picked by Franklin, in fact), opens Aug. 13 in theaters, with Fandango special early access screenings on Aug. 8.

“One of my pet peeves when I look at music biopics is there’s not enough music,” Tommy continued. “You get a little taste of the song and it’s like ‘Uh, er, eh?’ I knew I was gonna let the music play, and when we were working on the script we put the songs in specific places so the lyrics of the songs would be telling the story of her life.”

For Stephen Bray, one of film’s executive music producers, getting the music right — both the sound and the look — was key to making the nearly two-and-a-half-hour Respect credible.

“From the beginning,” Bray told Billboard, “the agreement was, ‘Let’s time travel to the degree we can in terms of recreating these iconic sessions for songs like ‘I Never Loved a Man” and “Respect’ and ‘Ain’t No Way.’ Let’s do the best we can at making it look and sound exactly like it may have back in 1967 or ’68.’ Super music nerd that I am, I had the time of my life. I would have done it for free. I’m lucky I got hired to do it. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had working.”

Bray — a Grammy Award winner who worked on Madonna’s early hits and on the stage adaptation of The Color Purple — grew up in Detroit but confesses to being “more of a Motown kid” than a Franklin fan. But that hardly dampened his enthusiasm for Respect after being recruited by co-producer Harvey Mason Jr., and Bray spent months “digging into a serious rabbit hole of ‘Which guitar is playing that? What pickups are on them? What kind of amp was it? What kind of microphones did they use?,’ all of that.” He collaborated with the film’s art department to acquire all of that, as well as to bring Fame Studios and Atlantic Studios to life in Atlanta, where Respect was filmed.

Among the holy grails, Bray said, were vintage Neumann U-48 and U-47 microphones, as well as specific drum kits. Director Tommy, meanwhile, said those efforts were integral for realizing her vision. “One of my favorite things to do in this movie was looking at the creation of things,” she explained. “We are artists. We understand how to rehearse. We understand how to create, and that’s something you get to know in this film. It’s not like everybody goes in and starts playing and ‘Ooh, yeah!’ and that’s all you get on that front. It’s much more complicated than that. It’s a process.”

Bray and company had help, too, in getting the details right, consulting with Muscle Shoals musicians such as Dewey “Spooner” Oldham and David Hood about their sessions with Franklin.

“It was amazing to have the original guys there,” Bray said. “When we were shooting the ‘I Never Loved a Man’ scene I went over to talk to Spooner, which was amazing. I said, ‘How’s it looking to you?’ and he was, ‘I always faced Aretha,’ so we immediately went out there and moved (Oldham’s) Wurlitzer so (actor David Simpson) was facing (Hudson). That was accurate.” Bassist Hood, meanwhile, helped identify the specific guitars used, and which guitarist played which instrument.

Oldham, who saw Respect at an advance screening in Nashville, also gave some input to National Geographic’s Genius: Aretha docuseries. But he told Billboard that he felt Respect offered a closer to truth representation of the recording sessions. “I was pleased with the way I was presented (in Respect) as opposed to the TV show,” Oldham said. “(Respect) did it truthfully. There were no photographs (from Fame Studios), but I do remember being there playing, all the players, where everybody stood — it’s a clear memory, still, after 50 years. So I think I was able to help them there a little bit.”

Oldham added that watching Respect brought back fond memories of working with Franklin between 1967-69. “I found her to be such a creative force,” he recalled. “She wasn’t that well known that first time, but I could see her talent exuding, how good she was musically. She was always nice and pleasant to me (but) didn’t talk much. I don’t think she was shy, she just portrayed herself that way.”

Bray and fellow music producer Jason Michael Webb wound up using Oldham on versions of “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Respect” for the Respect soundtrack, which comes out Aug. 13 on Epic Records. They also tracked down frequent Franklin saxophonist Charles Chalmers for the soundtrack version of “Respect.” Some of the instrumentalists were recorded remotely after the COVID-19 pandemic began, but Bray — who played drums in some of the film’s church scenes — says all the singing, by Hudson as well as Audra McDonald, Mary J. Blige, Saycon Sengbloh and Hailey Kilgore, was done live on the set. “Liesl made it a point to bring in people who can really sing live,” he said. “That helped us a lot in post (production). We didn’t have to worry about doing all that vocal subbing you see in a lot of these kinds of movies.”

And director Tommy, who’s the first woman of color ever nominated for a Tony Award for best direction of a play (for 2016’s Eclipse), wouldn’t have it any other way. “Coming from theater and having Jennifer, I knew everyone had to sing live,” she said. “This was not a movie that was made in a studio.”

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