Being hand-picked by one of the greatest singers of all time to play her in a posthumous biopic seems like a lot of pressure. Still, this is Oscar winner (and, somehow, American Idol 7th place finisher) Jennifer Hudson we’re talking about, so it seems like things worked out well (in the singing department, at least) when Hudson portrayed Aretha Franklin in Respect. Appearing live in front of a rapturously enthusiastic Late Show live crowd on Thursday, Hudson told Stephen Colbert that her years-long friendship with her singing idol prior to Franklin’s death in 2018 gave her the confidence to bring the American icon to the screen. Even if she was still learning things about Franklin’s remarkable life and accomplishments right up until the end.
Like the fact that Franklin used her stardom to support the Civil Rights Movement by, among other things, occasionally playing warmup act for speeches from Dr. Martin Luther King. (Honestly hard to imagine anyone coming away from those nights uninspired.) Or how the later-days Ms. Franklin always seemed to know Hudson’s (and everyone else’s) business whenever they talked on the phone. Or, as she performed alongside Late Show bandleader Jon Batiste and a game Colbert himself, the real difference between her voice and Franklin’s when singing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” while accompanying herself on Batiste’s piano. (Piano being one other thing the multitalented Hudson had to learn for Respect’s lauded performance scenes.)
Telling Colbert and Batiste that a helpful singing coach explained how Franklin’s singing came “from the top of her head,” while Hudson’s emerges “from her feet” (it makes sense when Hudson demonstrates it), Hudson started out swapping verses between her own and Franklin’s voice, before allowing Batiste and Colbert to join in for the chorus. Now, Jon Batiste is no slouch, obviously, hitting the song’s soaring falsetto notes with aplomb. But it was Colbert who earned the spotlight—and a seemingly genuine admiration from Hudson—for the crescendo, his own high notes impressively not cracking as the song kept going higher and higher. Sure, Colbert’s done Sondheim, but that was more in his register, and Hudson seemed both amused and impressed by the display. Still, Colbert wasn’t missed later in the show, when Hudson did a stunning solo “Respect.”