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Aretha Franklin Says She's Met w/ Lifetime About Her Biopic; Still Wants Audra McDonald to Star

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by Tambay A. Obenson
July 3, 2014 6:11 PM
9 Comments
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"We're very, very close to signatures on one agreement [...] It's just a matter of our coming to terms and agreeing about what we're doing to do [...] Right now it could be one of several people [...] There's always the producers' book, who the producer wants you to consider, and sometimes unknown names [...] Audra's [McDonald] got a great voice to work with, but she's very Broadway oriented, but that doesn't mean she cannot perform in the arena of soul, so that's why I'm interested in hearing how she would sing my things. The singing is certainly going to be a very, very integral and important part of it."


Words from Aretha Franklin in a June 25th interview with Billboard magazine. The piece was published last week, but I'm only just reading about it. The article's focus is really on her upcoming divas covers album, tucked away inside Billboard's website. 

The profile also adds that Franklin recently met with Lifetime channel executives in New York, to discuss her biopic (one that's been in development for what feels like an eternity). She doesn't share what came of her meeting with Lifetime, other than to say what she said above (that they are "very, very close to signatures"). But I won't at all be surprised if a deal is struck, given the network's recent interest in biopics based on the lives of black public figures. For example, "Betty & Coretta," Gabby Douglas, Whitney Houston, and Aaliyah. There have also been several Lifetime movies telling stories centered on the lives of black characters, like the all-black remake of "Steel Magnolias," "A Day Late and a Dollar Short," "Abducted," and more.

Clearly the network is interested (and has likely found much success) in targeting African American audiences with its original movies.

An Aretha Franklin biopic would certainly fit - depending on how Franklin herself imagines the project's look and feel. If she's meeting with Lifetime, she clearly hasn't ruled out a telepic, as opposed to a film made specifically for the big screen. Although, at this point, after so many years of wanting to get it made, she just may be weary of the struggle, and is willing to settle for less than she may have initially wanted.

Time will tell...

Audra McDonald is aware that Franklin is interested in having her star in the film, stating, when asked about the possibility a year ago that, "it would be an honor to play her," unlike Halle Berry, who was Franklin's first choice for the part, but who wasn't interested.

Unless Audra was just being polite in her above response to Broadway.com, who asked her about it early last year.

It's been a long journey for this project (I believe we've been tracking it for as long as this blog has been around - 5 years). Over that time, Franklin has certainly not been shy about talking up the potential film, name-dropping, sharing who she'd met with, who was interested, who she'd like to work with, etc.

In 2012, in an interview posted on Glamour magazine's website, Franklin revealed that the movie would be directed by Taylor Hackford, who produced and directed "Ray." Whether he's indeed attached hasn't been confirmed by the filmmaker (that I'm aware of). 

It was in that same interview that she first expressed interest in Audra, stating: "I went to see Audra in 'Porgy and Bess,' and I was very impressed with her dramatic ability. She was terrific... And Jennifer [Hudson] had voice. Audra has voice. The question is whether or not Audra can cross over into soul. You know, she does Broadway magnificently. But can she get over into soul is the question."

Apparently, given her most recent comment about Audra, in her interview with Billboard last week, she still wonders whether Audra can cross over into soul. You'd think that, by now, since there's seemingly mutual interest, both women would've gotten together some time over the last 2 years to discuss the possibility of Audra starring in the film, which would've given Franklin the opportunity to hear how she would "sing my things," as she states above. This should be a done deal by now, I would think. Just bring her in for a screen test and listen to her sing some of Aretha's tracks; or Aretha comes to New York (she was just here, to meet with Lifetime execs), sets up a time to meet with Audra, and they hash it all out. I would think they would've done that already, if there was interest, which there clearly is. It's been a long time.

I should note that, in that same Billboard interview, Jennifer Hudson is mentioned as still being a candidate for the role, although Franklin seems more keen on Audra. 

Meanwhile, in the 2012 Glamour magazine interview, she also shared: "We [she and Hackford] are fine-tuning the treatment now. The treatment has four acts. He has finished all four. We’re now reworking some of it where it needs work: ‘A little more drama, tell me something else, what else happened here? We need a little more of this, a little more of that.’"

She also said that an actor she and Hackford would both like to see play her father in the movie is Denzel Washington: "He [Taylor] mentioned Denzel first, and I was thinking of Billy Dee [Williams]. That’s who I was thinking of. And he mentioned Denzel, and I said ‘Hmm...’ And when I thought about Malcolm X, and what he did with that, I said, ‘Yes! He could do it. He could handle it. If he put a little more weight on and glasses, he could handle it.’ [...] My dad, yeah. That’s the way it opens. It opens in the pulpit with my dad speaking on "The Eagle Stirs Her Nest." The equation is a mother and her children. That’s the way the movie is going to open."

"The Eagle Stirs Her Nest" was a 1961 sermon preached by her father, Rev. C. L. Franklin.

She also shared that Dorothy Norwood, Karen Clark and La Shun Pace (all award-winning gospel singers), had already been cast to play the Clara Ward singers in the movie (Clara Ward being the queen of gospel music, and among those that would influence Aretha's music and vocal style, as well as a longtime lover of Rev. C. L. Franklin, Aretha's father, with whom the Ward singers toured extensively).

And finally, when asked what her vision for the film is, Aretha said: "Accuracy. The facts. Let’s present the facts, and be as creative as possible with them."

I think we can all agree with her on that point, if nothing else.

In the past, we've joked about the uncertainty of this movie, wondering if it was indeed a real project. But, it looks like it very much is. I don't think anyone's asked Taylor Hackford about he's involvement in the project; nothing that's showed up on my Google alerts, anyway. Maybe one of you knows something different.

Franklin boasted about it, calling the project, "an epic tale with probably the most starring and supporting roles since Roots."

Well, if Audra is indeed cast as Aretha, that could be epic. But if it's produced for/by the Lifetime network, say goodbye to any epic-ness. 

Tick, tock...

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9 Comments

  • Robert | July 10, 2014 1:38 PMReply

    It should be a really good actress regardless of how well or if that person could sing, because it should be Aretha's singing voice dubbed in! A very good film maker and actor can make it work.

  • Joan Adrienne | July 7, 2014 11:24 AMReply

    When Ms. Franklin was so insistent on casting Halle Berry in the lead of her biopic, the fact that Berry wasn't a "singer" never seemed to be an issue at all. So, why is she being so particular now with a talent who is not only an incredible actor but a phenomenal singer?

  • Alias | July 5, 2014 5:16 PMReply

    @Miles Ellison: My sentiments exactly. I don't know why the Queen of Soul is questioning Audra's ability, when the real question is "Why would you get in bed with Lifetime" to have them produce a movie about your life? And why would Aretha think someone like Taylor Hackford would want to direct a movie for Lifetime.

  • Miles Ellison | July 4, 2014 6:11 PMReply

    She should want a network other than Lifetime to make this movie. Because if they are involved, it's guaranteed to be garbage, no matter who they get to play her.

  • Shela | July 4, 2014 5:55 PMReply

    Hands down..Jennifer Hudson should get the part! I read Aretha's biography..dull read - it was like compiling all Jet and Ebony articles into a book. Don't blame her for being 'private'; however, when you sign up for a bio-movie, we wanna see warts and all.

  • Chris | July 4, 2014 12:23 PMReply

    Audra can sing ANYTHING. Why is there a debate. She is beyond talented, an absolute legend. Her acting and her singing are phenomenal. Hollywood is so behind Broadway on picking talent. She could be winning Oscars and slaying everybody right now.

  • sosgemini | July 3, 2014 7:32 PMReply

    Gotta love ReRE's hubris. She's earned it.

  • woh | July 3, 2014 7:14 PMReply

    If Audra is cast in this project, I should get casting credits. Suggested her on this website when the Queen of Soul wanted Halle :-)

  • Ashley | July 3, 2014 6:43 PMReply

    "The question is whether or not Audra can cross over into soul. You know, she does Broadway magnificently. But can she get over into soul is the question."

    Any question about Audra's ability to sing ANYTHING will be put to rest once she sees Audra as Billie Holiday in Lady Day At Emerson's Bar and Grill on Broadway. The woman was a legend before she was 30 years old. Why are we still questioning her skills?

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