When director Liesl Tommy was growing up in Cape Town, South Africa, her family used to spend weekends on Table Mountain, a flat-topped peak that overlooks the city. As a mixed-race family living under apartheid, they were restricted from going to the same schools, restaurants, movie theaters and churches as White people. But in nature, they could hike, swim and play together outside the control of the apartheid state, Tommy said. When the sun went down behind the mountains, her uncles would take out their guitars and play music around the fire.
“No matter what was going on inside the struggle, those were very precious hours where people could actually enjoy their country and be together,” she said. “Music, for me, always symbolized freedom.”
And one artist that was in constant rotation in her family’s songbook was Aretha Franklin.
Years later and a continent away, Tommy almost couldn’t believe it when she was chosen to direct the definitive biopic of the Queen of Soul herself. “Respect” stars Jennifer Hudson, who was handpicked by Franklin to portray her (Franklin was involved in the film’s production until her death in 2018). The rest of the cast includes stars like Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald and Mary J. Blige — another of Tommy’s musical heroes.
“I fought very hard for this,” she said. “Because I truly believe that I have something worthwhile to say with her story.”
Ahead of the film’s release Friday, we asked Tommy to make a playlist of the songs that inspired her while making the film, from Aretha’s biggest hits to the music of South Africa, Motor City and beyond that kept her grounded through it all.
Listen and read along with her commentary below.
I mean, it’s iconic! It’s the name of the movie. It’s the thing I was most afraid of shooting because I was like, “If I get the ‘Respect’ concert wrong, then I better pack it all up.”
This song wasn’t originally going to be in the movie, but it’s my favorite song — and when I found out it’s Jennifer’s favorite song, too, I was like, “We’ve got to put it in the movie.” It was also written by her sister, so it just symbolizes sisterhood to me.
This was the beginning of Aretha finding her voice. She went out to Muscle Shoals, Ala., after nine albums that flopped. With a new producer, a new manager and new musicians, she found herself there.
Jackson was a mentor to Aretha, so listening to this helped me remember her influences.
This was one of the gospel songs from her album “Amazing Grace.” There was a story about how she became very emotional in rehearsal for this album, and she basically started preaching. Women in the Baptist Church do not preach, but she was taken by the spirit.
There’s something so sexy about this song, and I did want the movie to be sexy. This song put me in touch with that sensual side.
I first became obsessed with this song as a theater director when I watched our sound designers balance the space. It’s a protracted and detailed process. The designers always played “Butterflies,” because there was something about the way it was orchestrated that helped them understand if the system was balanced.
This song helped me connect to the Detroit vibe that I had to keep in mind throughout the movie.
In my research, I found this story about when she visited producer John Hammond in New York. He asked her to play something, and she played this cowboy song about riding a horse on the Navajo Trail. I became obsessed with it! I wanted to put it in the movie, but everyone was like, “Really?”
I ended up putting this into the movie. It just worked. He’s a musical genius that can tell a story in music.
I was thinking, “Who are the other examples of musical excellence?” because that’s who she would have been listening to. She changed music, so who else did that during this time? Jimi Hendrix.
This song always makes me cry because it makes me homesick. The piano, the composition, is very Cape Town. It’s a very emotional song for me.
When do you not listen to Coltrane? He was another like Hendrix that kept me grounded in the excellence and innovation of that time period. I wanted to make a biopic that wasn’t like other biopics, so I just kept going back to these geniuses to help me remember to be brave and to innovate.
I think all of my work is to do with freedom. Because of how I grew up, it’ll probably be a theme I explore for the rest of my life.
I’m a Mary J. Blige obsessive, so I gotta end this with Mary J. Blige. This song is how I felt every time I thought about the fact that she was going to be in my movie. I never told her this, because I had to be very professional, obviously, but when one of my cousins heard she was in the movie, she called and whispered: “Mary J. Blige is your favorite. What are you going to do when you when you meet her?” I was like, “I don’t know, I’m going to act like a grown-up lady and do my job and direct her!”