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Jennifer Hudson channels Aretha Franklin for ‘Here I Am’ in her film ‘Respect’

Singer and actress Jennifer Hudson shows off a necklace that holds the word "Respect."
In addition to starring as Aretha Franklin in “Respect,” Jennifer Hudson had a hand in writing an original song for the film. “Here I Am (Singing My Way Home)” reflects a mantra that wasn’t just part of Franklin’s life, but something Hudson says she reminds herself of every day.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

When the idea was broached to include an original song at the end of Liesl Tommy’s “Respect,” Jennifer Hudson and her management team knew where to start. The Oscar and Grammy winner had been chosen by Aretha Franklin herself to portray her in the long-awaited biopic, so every aspect of the production had to be perfect, including this song. Hudson initially met with a previous collaborator, songwriter and music producer, Jamie Hartman, but they soon realized there was an important person from Franklin’s life that needed to be involved.

Hartman recalls thinking, “Jennifer has been asked to play this role by Aretha. It’s a huge moment. How can we really serve this at its very best, if we’re going to do an end-title song? And I was like, ‘Well, who are the greatest writers that there have ever been, that have worked with Aretha?’ I thought about Carole.”

Carole King, a four-time Grammy winner with a massive 118 Billboard’s Hot 100 hits, co-wrote Franklin’s monster 1967 hit “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Besides appearing on King’s 1995 tribute album, Franklin also memorably sang “Natural Woman” for King at her 2015 Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, a performance that became one of many iconic moments in Franklin’s life.

Carole King left her life in New York for L.A., and with the support of friends like James Taylor wrote “Tapestry,” one of the best-loved albums ever.

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“We managed to get to her through Sherry, her daughter and manager, and approach her with the idea of writing this end-title, because who better? And she graciously agreed to come out of retirement, actually, to do this,” Hartman says. “And from then on it was a Zoom situation, because we were in different places. She lives in Sun Valley. I was in L.A. at the time. Jennifer was at home, [in Chicago].”

Hudson thought the idea to bring King on board was genius, especially as she saw the film as “a tribute to Ms. Franklin’s legacy in life.” When all three initially spoke, King hadn’t seen the movie yet, but Hudson was struck by her experiences with Franklin. In Hudson’s mind, “it was as though she saw the film.” During the writing process, King also insisted that Jennifer contribute to the songwriting.

“She encouraged me to have a say in the song and to put in my words,” Hudson recalls. “And it takes me to Ms. Franklin. I always say, ‘Jennifer, use your voice.’ And then here come Ms. King saying, ‘Jennifer, use your words.’ And so, in fact, that introduction is her choice roots coming through as well as mine. And so, all of that happened organically based off our own personal experiences with [Franklin], in a sense. And it just happened to align perfectly with the film.”

The eventual song, “Here I Am (Singing My Way Home),” which earned a Grammy nomination last week, also reflects a mantra that wasn’t just part of Franklin’s life, but something Hudson says she reminds herself of every day.

“It’s always a [gig] that keeps me from getting home, and I’m singing my way home,” Hudson explains. “And then no one can say Ms. Franklin did not sing her way all the way to her heavenly home. So, to me, it resonated to both of us, you know what I mean?”

In the context of the picture, the new song plays following Franklin’s triumphant live recording of her landmark “Amazing Grace” album at Los Angeles’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. To this day, it’s still the highest selling live gospel album of all time. Keeping that sound was one of two things Hudson felt were important to maintain in the film.

“We had to maintain the gospel [sound]. That had to be the base, because that was her base,” Hudson says. “And spirituality. We had to make sure her faith is present, because that’s what carried her through, and that’s the thing that’s carrying me through. So those things to me were key to be present, that I felt was authentic to her and myself just the same.”

Just as important to Hartman was the fact that “Here I Am” needed to, for lack of a better word, respect both Franklin‘s and King’s careers. Any aspect that even hinted at a sound-alike to a previous track wasn’t acceptable.

He notes, “I didn’t want people to think, ‘Oh, they’ve just gone and done a rip of “Dr. Feelgood (Love Is A Serious Business)”' or ‘They’ve done a rip of “Natural Woman.”’ I think the respect for what we do is to be true to what was in front of us and what was inside us. It wasn’t sort of underlying. It was just, ‘Let’s just create something.’”

One aspect of the film itself both Hartman and Hudson appreciate is how it focuses on Franklin’s overall musical talent.

“I’ve had people come to me and [acknowledge] her as the greatest singer in the world,” Hudson says. “’Oh, hold on. But did you know she wrote that too? Did you know she played it?’ I don’t think they knew how deeply invested and present she was, all around. No, Aretha was a conductor. She was a musician. And even when she didn’t literally write the words, she was still there musically. To me, it covers it overall. All around. Yes, she was not only the greatest singer, but the greatest musician and the greatest writer and the greatest interpreter.”


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