BAZ BAMIGBOYE: None shall sleep when Jennifer Hudson is on the screen
BAZ BAMIGBOYE: None shall sleep when Jennifer Hudson is on the screen
A good song will always get Jennifer Hudson’s attention — even if it’s bellowed at her, out of tune, across a canal.
The Oscar-winning star was boarding a water taxi at the Excelsior Hotel’s private dock on the Venice Lido. I was on the bridge above when I spotted her. I began waving frantically; then figured the best way to catch her eye would be to belt out Nessun Dorma (off key). It worked. She stretched out her arms, and sang it back to me. In tune, of course.
Puccini’s famous aria from Turandot was very much on Hudson’s mind because the Dolce & Gabbana people had flown her here to sing it at their glittering fashion show — and dressed her up in a variety of sumptuous golden gowns for the occasion.
Hudson reminded me that her heroine Aretha Franklin stepped in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti and performed the tenor’s signature song at the 1998 Grammy awards.
A good song will always get Jennifer Hudson’s attention — even if it’s bellowed at her, out of tune, across a canal
Hudson was thrilled to perform it in Venice because Nessun Dorma’s not featured in the film Respect, in which the actress (who turns 40 next weekend) portrays the Queen of Soul. Though as she pointed out: ‘I would be filming for the rest of my life if we covered every significant moment of her life!’
Even so, a lot does get packed into the two hour-plus picture which opens next Friday (September 10). But for me, it doesn’t come alive until Hudson appears, 30 minutes in. She’s a force of nature — like the icon she portrays. Their combined energies propel the best parts of Respect.
And a tip from me: don’t leave the minute the film ends. There’s the coolest bonus.
I first saw Hudson in person on the set of Dreamgirls in early 2006 at the old Hollywood Palace Theatre in Los Angeles.
Beyoncé was ostensibly the star of that production. But as I sat in the stalls, my eyes and ears were drawn to Hudson. I couldn’t hear Beyoncé from the tenth row. But I heard Hudson just fine. She has heat when she sings. And that’s why she won her Academy Award.
In Respect, someone says of Aretha that ‘music will save that little girl’. Hudson said there’s ‘no question’ that holds true for her as well. ‘I grew up what they call a lap baby, on my godmother’s knee in the choir stand in church. I’ve always been around music.
Aretha anointed Hudson to portray her on screen before her death in 2018. And the actress told me that every time she met with Miss Franklin (listen, I met her, and you called her Miss Franklin, OK!), it was ‘like some sort of audition’
Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin and Forest Whitaker as her father C.L. Franklin in Respect
‘At first, though, my mother put me in ballet class. My brother took piano; and my sister took tap. But I protested. I knew what I wanted to do by the age of seven.
‘No question in my mind about music saving me. I don’t know where I would be without it. I’d be like Superman, losing his powers.’
She laughed and added: ‘I can’t find my way around the house in the morning without music. That’s how my son finds me. He’s like: follow the music. She’s up!’
Hudson had her son David, now 12, when she was in her late 20s. Aretha had already given birth to two sons by the time she was 14. She never spoke of who fathered them, though the rumours were that it was someone close to her.
Miss Franklin’s mother died when she was aged ten. Hudson was 27 when her mother, brother and nephew were slain by her sister’s estranged husband.
Aretha anointed Hudson to portray her on screen before her death in 2018. And the actress told me that every time she met with Miss Franklin (listen, I met her, and you called her Miss Franklin, OK!), it was ‘like some sort of audition’.
‘She never said, like: ‘I want you to play me because of this or that.’ And I regret that I never asked her: why me?
‘But during filming I realised she must have seen behind the Jennifer that sings and acts. She saw the life experiences as well. Maybe she saw the pain that I tried to hide. In a lot of ways there were parallels. I feel like I ended up telling her story through my pain.’
There are some good performances in the film from Forest Whitaker, as Aretha’s manipulative pastor father C.L. Franklin; Gilbert Glenn Brown as Martin Luther King Jr; Audra McDonald as her mother Barbara; and Hailey Kilgore and Saycon Sengbloh as her sisters Carolyn and Erma. But the movie belongs to Hudson.
Her renditions of Dr Feelgood, I Never Loved A Man, Respect, Natural Woman and Amazing Grace (to name just a few) are spectacular. What’s smart is, though, that they’re sung from Hudson’s perspective. There’s a sense of Aretha; but as the actress puts it ‘you can’t duplicate Aretha Franklin’.
The Oscar-winning star was boarding a water taxi at the Excelsior Hotel’s private dock on the Venice Lido. I was on the bridge above when I spotted her
‘That was the scary part: her music is a treasure to all of us. Her sound was her own.’
The songs were mainly performed live, ‘except if a song was to be heard on the radio; then we recorded it and you heard it blasted from the radio’.
Doing the great song Ain’t No Way was tricky. In the scene, Aretha’s shown learning the number. ‘I know that song like the back of my hand!’ Hudson exclaimed. ‘So I had to unlearn it; and perform as if hearing it for the first time.’
Like all of us, the Queen of Soul had her off days; and could be harsh; cruel, even. There’s a sense of that in the film — though it’s explored further in the eight-part Genius drama currently showing on Disney+. Cynthia Erivo portrays Franklin in that — and as it happens, Erivo’s in Venice, too; on the Festival’s jury. (Respect is not being shown here, by the way; and by Wednesday night Hudson was back in the States, singing at the Apollo in Harlem.)
During our interview, the American told me it was important to include ‘a sense of the human side’ of Franklin. The curse of fame was that ‘you’re supposed to be 100 per cent sunny all the time’.
She noted that Franklin lived through a time of great upheaval and change. ‘She earned the right to have her moment!’
During our interview, the American told me it was important to include ‘a sense of the human side’ of Franklin
Aretha was born in Memphis, but grew up in Detroit. Hudson’s own roots are in Chicago. She was born and raised there; and for her ‘sanity’, continues to live there. ‘I don’t think I could be one of those people who’s completely engulfed in Hollywood. I always say that I’m singing my way home to Chicago.’ And back to her son, David.
‘My son brings his own orchestra of sound into the house,’ she joked. ‘I sometimes have a house full of boys. I call it Camp David, when he’s with his seven cousins. We play basketball, and go on bike rides. We do all the activities, to the point where they think I’m one of the boys.’
Hudson also has two cats: Grizabella (named after the part she played in Cats) and Macavity (another character from the film, based on TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book Of Practical Cats).
She told me she loved the movie, which got a critical panning when it came out two years ago. ‘I just came in, sang Memory, cried a few tears,’ she said. ‘But all those dancers did the work. My heart goes out to them.’
So what’s next? She swatted away rumours that she’s going to play Whitney Huston. ‘I love her, but playing her is meant for someone else.’
So who is she meant to play? ‘My new dream is Oprah Winfrey,’ she said, matter-of-factly.
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