Aretha Franklin Talks Odds On Halle Berry Biopic Casting, Obama Second Term

aretha franklin thelonious monk event
Elisa Komins Morris

At an event celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Thelonious Monk Institute, the Queen of Soul, Kevin Eubanks and Doug E. Fresh weighed in on the President's performance and prospects. Plus, Franklin updates THR on her passion project: a movie about her life.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Aretha Franklin brought an uncharacteristically mellow vibe to the nation’s capital Monday night, back in her element on stage and looking royally relaxed as she partook in this city’s specialty -- a little off stage politicking.           

Smaller in size but not stature after what reports speculated was (and Franklin insists was not) a scare with pancreatic cancer, the Queen of Soul came to Washington to receive the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz Founder’s Award. Herbie Hancock, Jennifer Hudson, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright were among the mix of D.C. and Hollywood A-listers on hand to pay homage to Franklin and to the Institute, now in its 25th year.

Though public performances since her December surgery have been rare, Franklin gamely followed up a medley of her own hits (performed on Monday by a group that included Hudson, Chaka Kahn, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Diane Reeves) with a smooth rendition of “Moody’s Mood for Love.” And while the standard seemed to bring out the diva’s softer side, Franklin was characteristically feisty offstage in discussing the man whom she -- and her iconic hat -- helped inaugurate in 2009. 

“It was tough when he got there,” she told The Hollywood Reporter of the bleak economic landscape facing President Obama. “He’s doing everything he can do and,” Franklin added for emphasis, “that can be done at this point in time.”

And Aretha may know better than most. She has spent time of late with the President, having revved up the crowd with a brief set before the President’s Labor Day speech in the Motor City, a speech generally seen as the kick-off to the fall political season. “He rocked the crowd!” beamed the woman who knows a thing or two about whipping a crowd into frenzy. “He was terrific!” (Franklin was slated to see Obama again on Wednesday, this time for an Oval Office visit alongside finalists of the Monk Institute’s International Jazz Piano Competition).

But while the Queen of Soul had only high marks for the President’s performance, some of her fellow artists were less amped by Obama’s generally low-key, no-more-drama approach to the nation’s political battles.

“He knows the game, he got into it,” said pioneering beat boxer Doug E. Fresh. “Show me what you got! It’s like me being an MC --sometimes the mic don’t work. But I can’t stand there and tell the audience ‘Aww, the mic don’t work’. The audience don’t care.”

Longtime Tonight Show Bandleader and Monk Institute backer Kevin Eubanks, whose telegenic laugh belies a lively policy wonk, saw Obama as only the latest victim of a much bigger problem with American culture.

“We personify [national problems] in the body of one person,” he lamented. “That makes us not responsible. Because if it’s not his fault, then it’s our fault.”

Still, Eubanks predicted that Obama would weather the storm and maybe even earn himself a monument on the National Mall, just as the late Martin Luther King, Jr. did a few weeks ago. (Aretha herself had been scheduled to perform at the monument’s dedication, but Hurricane Irene had other ideas).  

Undaunted, the Queen of Soul was in good spirits Monday and, according to associates, seems to have a new lease on life. She’ll duet with Tony Bennett at the Metropolitan Opera House later this month, and offered up that she is close to getting her passion project -- an Aretha biopic -- off the ground.

“We’re hammering out the last details,” Franklin said of the project, which made headlines earlier this year when the non-singing Halle Berry sidestepped an offer to take on the role. That didn’t sit well with Franklin, who carped to talk show host Wendy Williams that she “would like the person who is going to play me to be more confident."

But Monday night in D.C., it was Aretha who exuded all the confidence. “Halle Berry,” she said. “I think Halle Berry’s gonna get it.”