Aretha… The Queen of Soul
In a silvery baby blue dress, with ultra teased Sixties hairdo, beneath pink and blue spotlights Aretha Franklin commands the stage at New York’s Madison Square Garden, thrilling the crowd as she belts out her signature hit, Respect.
It’s one of the emotional highlights in the hotly-awaited new movie about the turbulent life of the Queen of Soul. Respect opens in the US on Friday and in the UK next month.
Franklin is played by Jennifer Hudson, the Oscar-winning star of 2006 hit Dreamgirls, in the film that follows the singing legend from her beginnings as a childhood church choir prodigy through a slew of troubles to her breakthrough as one of pop music’s most iconic divas.
She sold more than 75 million records and won 18 Grammy awards while topping the charts with hits including Respect, Chain Of Fools and You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman, before dying from pancreatic cancer at the age of 76.
And August 16 marks the third anniversary of her death.
But for the past two years Franklin’s family has been viciously attacking the film, and until recently at least was urging fans to boycott it.
Jennifer Hudson promoting Respect
The singer spent a lifetime trying to sugarcoat the harsher realities of her life, and her family has been equally protective of her memory while fighting bitterly amongst themselves over her fortune.
Franklin did her best to hide the fact she was abandoned by her mother at the age of six and became a mother of two by the age of 14.
Twice married, she went on to have four children by three different fathers.
She survived domestic abuse, struggled with alcoholism, endured feuds with rival divas Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, Barbra Streisand and Dionne Warwick, and fought pancreatic cancer for more than a decade.
Aretha was abandoned by her mother at the age of six but went on to thrill audiences
Amazingly, Respect is the third movie in three years about Franklin that her family has tried to stop.
It’s emblematic of the singing legend’s highly defensive and fractured clan, who three years after Franklin’s death continue to battle over her estate, estimated to be worth as much as £58million.
After Franklin died on August 16, 2018, her last will and testament appeared… and then another… and yet another. In March 2021, a fourth will surfaced. Each will carries conflicting instructions and beneficiaries.
Judge Jennifer Callaghan in Michigan’s Oakland County Probate Court set a date for later this month to disentangle the battling wills, though experts warn the case could easily be delayed again.
At war are Franklin’s four sons: Clarence, Edward, Ted White Jr, and Kecalf.
They are fighting over their mother’s assets, including her vast music catalogue, recording royalties, and licensing rights to her name and image.
They are also battling over who should represent her estate, until recently run by Franklin’s executor, her niece Sabrina Owens.
They hope to cash in on Franklin’s lucrative career in the afterlife, following in the footsteps of stars like Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley and John Lennon, who continue to earn millions after their deaths.
But in a surprising volte-face, Franklin’s youngest son Kecalf, 50, who has long been the new movie’s most vocal critic, last month underwent a dramatic change of heart, unexpectedly endorsing the film.
Though the movie was made without the family’s cooperation, Kecalf joined Jennifer Hudson last Sunday for a private screening of Respect in Detroit, Michigan. He came away saying the MGM studio had been “extremely professional” in telling his mother’s story, and hailed Hudson as “phenomenal”.
It has not been revealed whether Kecalf had received any payment for giving the movie his belated blessing. But the flip-flop was especially shocking since fighting against films about Aretha Franklin has become something of a family tradition.
Franklin herself sued several times over the years to prevent the release of the film Amazing Grace, which featured live footage of the singer recording her best-selling 1972 gospel album of the same name.
“There are problems,” she said enigmatically in 2015, after winning a court injunction to halt the film’s debut. Amazing Grace was finally released four months after her death.
British actress Cynthia Erivo’s portrayal of the diva in this year’s National Geographic TV mini-series Genius, which was broadcast in March, also drew attacks from Aretha Franklin’s family.
Mother and son Aretha and Kecalf
The singer’s granddaughter Grace Franklin posted on social media a video of herself flanked by her parents and siblings chanting: “This movie has to go!”
Grace explained: “As the immediate family we feel it’s important to be involved with any biopic of my grandma’s life, as it’s hard to get any accurate depiction of anyone’s life without speaking to the ones closest to them.”
It was the same argument Franklin’s youngest son Kecalf levelled against the latest film, Respect.
“How can you make a movie about a person and not talk to the person’s sons or grandchildren about important information?” he asked.
Kecalf was happy with the choice of Jennifer Hudson to play Aretha, but raged: “Everything else is being done against our wishes.”
Our mother has enriched the world with music, art and service of activism for more than half her life.
Franklin’s family also criticised the 2019 publication of The Queen Next Door, a collection of photos by the singer’s longtime personal photographer Linda Solomon.
But those with their hands on the reins of Franklin’s estate view Kecalf’s attacks as a bid to gain control of her fortune.
“This is all about his attempts to become the personal representative of the estate,” says David Bennett, Franklin’s longtime lawyer and estate counsel. “He [Kecalf] does not speak for the family… What he’s really doing is talking for himself.”
The battle has split the family bitterly: Kecalf’s bid to become the estate’s executor is backed by brother Edward, but opposed by siblings Clarence and Ted.
MGM was seething about the Franklin family’s assaults on its coming film, and Bennett confirmed last year “they’re not happy about it”.
The movie focuses on Franklin’s early life, and Bennett says: “Odds are, Kecalf Franklin either was not alive or was of such a tender age that he wouldn’t have direct knowledge of matters.”
The lengthy court battle has also exposed Franklin’s slipshod control of her own finances. It was revealed that the singer had carried £540,000 in uncashed cheques in her purse for months, and had £128,000 stolen by bank fraud just months before her death.
Her family had to pay seven years worth of Franklin’s unpaid taxes — almost £6million — after her demise.
The singer’s first three wills were written by hand, at his above barely legible, and apparently without help from lawyers. Two were found in a locked cabinet; a third reportedly stuffed inside a sofa cushion.
A troubled soul that gave it all for her fans
She also died without setting up a trust, needlessly tying up her estate in probate, depriving much-needed funds to her eldest son Clarence, who has special needs and a guardian.
And Franklin’s family are not the only ones after her heirlooms. Former President Barack Obama has asked for the hat Franklin wore while performing at his 2009 inauguration, and several museums are begging for examples of her flamboyant costumes.
Kecalf insists that he is not seeking personal enrichment, but only “pursuit of justice for the Queen.”
He explained: “Our mother has enriched the world with music, art and service of activism for more than half her life. The loss of our mother had traumatized our family.
“Despite our grief, we find ourselves in a battle to defend and protect this legacy against those who wish to disrespect, slander and exploit it.”
It’s all Aretha Franklin ever asked for: a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.