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Backstage With… Jennifer Hudson: The journey from American Idol to Queen of Soul

Written by on 10/09/2021

When Jennifer Hudson auditioned for American Idol in 2004, she sang an Aretha Franklin song.

Not only did the performance of Share Your Love With Me take her through to the next round, but her time on the show ultimately led to a music and acting career far eclipsing those of most winners.

She has an Oscar for her role in Dreamgirls, a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, and was brought to the attention of the Queen of Soul herself.

Jennifer Hudson stars in Aretha Franklin biopic Respect. Pic: Quantrell D Colbert/ Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures
Image: Hudson first met Franklin 15 years ago after performing one of her songs on American Idol in 2004

Franklin asked Hudson to play her in a film about her life, and the veteran star was involved with the project until she died in August 2018.

Respect has finally been released in cinemas, and Hudson has spoken to Sky News about the role Franklin has played in her life.

“She’s always been impactful in my life or a blueprint of it,” she said. “I’m like, wow, my American Idol audition song was an Aretha Franklin song and then I’d sit back and think of all the tributes that I was blessed to be able to do for her, you know, in her life… and then growing up in church and the songs that I grew up singing in church came from her Amazing Grace album.

“So she’s always been present and there for me and that’s helped shape me musically and as a person as well.”

More on Aretha Franklin

Making the new film meant delving into Franklin’s past, as it focuses on her early life up until she made Amazing Grace in 1972 at the age of 29. The album went on to become one of the biggest gospel records of all time.

Hudson says making this movie has taught her to better appreciate her own abilities as a singer.

“Trusting your voice – she was always big on that – and that’s the takeaway for me for from the film,” she says. “It wasn’t until she owned her voice that we got our Queen of Soul and that just stuck out to me and it resonated.

“It’s like we should take ownership of our gifts – it’s to be given to others, but to be conducted and orchestrated by us… that’s the biggest takeaway for me.”

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Not just focusing on Franklin’s singing career, Respect also depicts her work as an activist, and how close she was to the movement led by Dr Martin Luther King. Hudson says that by showing audiences the political side to the singer, it brings new meaning to her work as a musician.

“That’s why the films and biopics of people and icons such as Aretha Franklin are so important. Because for me, I come from a different era of Aretha, right?

“So when I heard her songs, it’s like, oh my God, this is a gifted singer and this is a great song, but once you look at the film and you learn the circumstances and the conditions in which she was singing those songs, and then it becomes a narrative in so many ways, it gives it that much more meaning and subtext and it makes you appreciate it and understand it that much more.”

Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin and Forest Whitaker as her father CL Franklin in Respect. Pic. Quantrell D Colbert/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures
Image: Forest Whitaker plays Franklin’s father CL Franklin

Respect has been in development for a long time – it’s 15 years since Franklin first met with Hudson about the film.

After it being such a big part of her life for so long, Hudson admits it will be difficult to let go.

“Thinking of that first meeting that was 15 years ago, and to know that [the film’s] been there and what it’s meant to me and my life and then what she’s meant to me and my life, and she’s gone, and now the project has come out.

“I guess the next chapter is me owning my own voice and space.”

Respect is out in cinemas in the UK now. Hear the interview with Jennifer Hudson in the latest episode of Backstage – the film and TV podcast from Sky News

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