The film is currently without a director. And a script has yet to be written. But that hasn’t stopped the buzz and at times surreal debate surrounding the still-in-development biopic about the monumental life and times of unimpeachable music giant Aretha Franklin from becoming a headlining topic. This, of course, should be of no shock. The revered Queen of Soul, who passed away on August 16 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer, was not only an American institution, she was a once-in-a-lifetime figure whose impact extended way beyond popular music.
Veteran music and movie producer Harvey Mason Jr. has the unenviable task of pulling off such a grandiose project for MGM, which already has its leading lady. Before her death, Ms. Franklin personally handpicked Oscar-winning actress and American Idol alum Jennifer Hudson to play the 18 Grammy adorned vocalist who blessed us with such landmark recordings as “Respect,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “Rock Steady” and “Freeway of Love.” It’s a strong, savvy pick that more than makes sense on paper, so Hudson stays. But the epic Aretha Franklin deserves an even more epic film. Here is how we envision the Queen’s big screen coronation turned up to 11.
Aretha Finds Her Voice
Actress: Skye Turner, age 9
The legend goes that in 1947, when he was a little boy growing up in Detroit, future Motown Records icon Smokey Robinson visited the Franklin home only to witness an otherworldly child with the gifted skill set of a seasoned talent. “We were walking to the house, and I heard music coming from - a piano being played and a little voice singing from this room, and I peeked in and there was Aretha sitting at the piano, playing and singing,” the G.O.A.T. songwriter told Reuters. “She was probably 5 or 6 years old, singing and playing almost like she did as an adult.” Of course, finding a preschool-aged actor to play such an extraordinary child prodigy like Ms. Franklin is nearly impossible. So we went with 9-year-old viral sensation and Texas native Skye Turner, who can not only sing most kids her age under the table, but reportedly plays the piano. Perfect.
Aretha Sets The Gospel World On Fire
Actress: Trinitee Stokes, age 14
It was under the watchful eye of her father and influential civil rights giant, the Rev. Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, that a young Aretha found her majestic voice at Detroit’s famed New Bethel Baptist Church. By 12, she was already sharing various concert bills with headlining gospel star Clara Ward. And at 14, she made her 1956 album debut with Spirituals, a heavenly work largely recorded at the aforementioned New Bethel. It’s raw, powerful stuff from an artist who was just scratching the surface of her remarkable genius. But there was plenty of heartbreak.
Indeed, Trinitee Stokes, who first came to fame as sarcastic robot Judy Cooper on the Disney Channel series K.C. Undercover, would have her hands full given that Ms. Franklin’s formative years were also marked by both tragedy and adversity. The sudden death of her mother in 1952 from a heart attack rocked the 10-year-old Aretha. And she dropped out high school, had a baby two months before her 13th birthday and had a second child at 15. However, the charismatic Stokes might just pull it off.
The Columbia Records Years
Actress: Dominique Fishback, age 27
It’s Fishback’s dynamic range and forever young gaze—yes the same Brooklyn born thespian who plays the sweet, but savvy prostitute Darlene in the acclaimed HBO ‘70s New York drama The Deuce—that gives her the edge to tackle Ms. Franklin’s most pivotal time as an 18-year-old looking to break out the church. When Sam Cooke left the popular gospel group the Soul Stirrers in 1957 to begin a solo career in the secular world, it was a shocking, genre-shifting statement to say the least. But for Ms. Franklin, Cooke’s eventual star turn as a crossover pop pioneer, gave her much needed inspiration to follow the lead of her family friend and hero (Sam would often times visit the Franklin household and church).
Ms. Franklin would move to New York and sign a recording deal with Columbia Records in 1960. Unfortunately, the teenager struggled to find commercial success, largely due to the overt mainstream material she was given, which included Gershwin and Meredith Wilson cover standards that muted Ms. Franklin’s heartfelt, Baptist fueled brilliance. Her coronation as the Queen of Soul would have to wait. As for Fishback, never mind if she has the vocal chops to fill the G.O.A.T.’s fur coat. That’s why God created lip-synching.
The Queen of Soul Is Born
Actress: Jennifer Hudson, age 36
When you are an Oscar-winning, vocal powerhouse personally chosen by the Queen herself for what can only be described as the role of your life you are expected to do the heavy lifting. There’s a lot for Jennifer Hudson to chew on here: Aretha Franklin’s career-changing jump to Atlantic Records; the hungry preacher’s daughter’s artistic and commercial breakthrough with 1967’s definitive “Respect”; her separation from allegedly abusive manager and husband Ted White; fighting through anguish and tears during the April 1968 Atlanta memorial service for slain civil rights giant Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as Ms. Franklin gave a powerful rendition of “Precious Lord Take My Hand ” her eight consecutive no. 1 albums and an impressive run of 20 no. 1 hits; industry rivalries with the all-world likes of Gladys Knight, Natalie Cole, Dionne Warwick, and Patti LaBelle; and a late ‘70s flame out that had critics questioning Aretha Franklin’s relevancy in the hedonistic age of disco.
Yet for Hudson, who in our envisioned biopic would play the Queen from age 27 to 55, one of the more interesting aspects of jumping head first into an Aretha Franklin film is watching her dramatize the singer’s legendary comeback in the 1980’s. Just imagine the scene in which the Queen gets into it with Luther Vandross—the quiet storm R&B great who produced Franklin’s gold return-to-form statement Jump To It (1982)—in the recording studio. Or when Ms. Franklin became an unlikely music video star with her 1985 Grammy-winning platinum album Who's Zoomin' Who? and two years later scored a no. 1 Billboard Hot 100 duet with George Michael ("I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)"), her first pop chart-topper since 1968. In the next decade she would go from singing at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration (1993) and pulling off yet another return to form in 1998 with the help of Lauryn Hill (the gold selling “A Rose Is Still A Rose” ) to delivering one of the greatest Grammy moments of all time. Not bad.
Long Live The Queen
Actress: Loretta Devine, 69
Even during her so called “twilight years” Aretha Franklin was a perpetually moving force-of-nature. Rather than slowing down after being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush, the highest civilian honor in the country, the 62-year-old was a continuing touring presence armed with a voice that still had plenty of push and pull. Sure it would be quite easy to let Hudson take on Ms. Franklin’s golden run in the spotlight, gaudy prosthetics and all. But if you really want to add even more depth and wisdom to the role you can’t do any better than Loretta Devine. The Emmy-winning TV and film vet also has street cred on the musical front as one of the original cast members of the Emmy lauded, early ‘80s Broadway classic Dreamgirls.
How heartfelt would it be to see Devine channeling an emotional Ms. Franklin singing during the historic 2008 swearing in of Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States? Yet the biggest testament to the power of her Royal Highness’ legacy remains her ability to connect with new, younger audiences. When she released her final album Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, a splashy collection of covers including Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” Alicia Keys’ “No One,” and the Prince-penned Sinead O’Conner hit “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the Clive Davis executive-produced project debuted at no. 13 on the Billboard 200 and No. 3 on the Billboard R&B albums charts. Ms. Franklin could never be denied.
(Lead photo by Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic)