How Aretha Franklin's Death Could Boost Biopic Chances
A producer on a movie set to star Jennifer Hudson as the late Queen of Soul says his film is "definitely moving forward."
Last January, at his annual pre-Grammy party, Clive Davis dropped the bombshell that Jennifer Hudson — "the artist anointed by Aretha Franklin herself"— would be starring as the Queen of Soul in an upcoming biopic. "Aretha personally told me that last week," Davis assured the crowd, then ushered Hudson onstage to sing a medley of Franklin's greatest hits.
According to one of its producers, the Hudson film is still going ahead, despite the diva's death Aug. 16 and the life rights issues that her passing may (or may not) dredge up. "Oh, it's definitely moving forward," says Harvey Mason Jr., a longtime music producer for Franklin who'd been working with the singer on the biopic for the past 18 months. "We are going forward and making the movie that Aretha wanted to make." Still, as of this writing, the project has no director, possibly no script ("We're not really saying," teases Mason) and maybe no studio (an MGM rep will not comment on rumors that the studio is interested).
Rumors of a film based on Franklin's life have been swirling for years — at one point, USA Network was said to be negotiating a TV movie — but before Davis' announcement, the closest it came to casting was in 2011, when Franklin caused a stir by mentioning on The Wendy Williams Show that Halle Berry would be her first choice (Berry later waved away the idea, noting that she couldn't "carry a tune").
Indeed, in all this time there's been only one known treatment for a Franklin biopic, written by Ray director Taylor Hackford in 2012. "Aretha had seen Ray and she called me to tell me how much she liked it," Hackford tells The Hollywood Reporter. "So we started working together on a film about her life. We talked on a semi-regular basis and met three times, and I ended up writing a treatment that she really liked. She kept changing how much money she wanted [for the life rights] — $1 million, $2 million — but we probably could have sold it." Except for one problem: "She wanted casting control of every character: herself, her sisters, her father, her grandmother," says Hackford. "I kept telling her nobody would agree to that. Ray Charles was a difficult guy, but even he never asked me that; Ray Charles had no idea who Jamie Foxx was. But she stuck by her demands. Aretha was not shy. So the project got put on hold."
Ironically, Franklin's death could end up perking up a biopic's chances. In some states, life rights expire with the individual, while in others (like California) they pass to heirs. In any case, Franklin's family, who will likely control her estate, will probably be at least a little less finicky over minutiae like the casting of grandmothers.
Franklin's death could also break the logjam that has kept another project in limbo, the never-released 1972 Sidney Pollock concert film Amazing Grace that Franklin had been suppressing with lawsuits and other tactics.
It will inevitably be months, as the singer's affairs are sorted out, before there are any more announcements about either project. But it will definitely be interesting to see what songs Hudson sings at Davis' next Grammy party.
This story appears in the Aug. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.