When I first heard Jennifer Hudson’s version of Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman,” I wasn’t sure what to make of it. A live version of the song, written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King with an assist from producer Jerry Wexler, was released in advance of the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect, which stars Hudson.
If any modern singer has the pipes to evoke Aretha’s essence, it’s Hudson, who made such a point with her Oscar-winning performance in Dreamgirls in 2006. That was a long time ago, and she’s been overdue to remind us of her vocal and acting prowess, so taking on Aretha here provided a prime opportunity.
But acting aside, how do we assess this musical performance? When Taron Egerton sang Elton John’s songs in Rocketman, his job was to imitate the man he was portraying while impressing us that he was using his actual, not-famous-singer’s voice. Jamie Foxx had established himself as a singer by the time he played Ray Charles in Ray (2004), but his job in that movie was to act and sound as much like the R&B singer as possible, not to make us aware of his unique stylings.
Hudson has more of a dual agenda. Yes, she wants to convince viewers and listeners think they’re seeing and hearing Aretha despite distinct qualities to their voices and appearances, but she also wants to remind us that she’s an individual, formidable talent as well.
As she told Billboard about merging her singing style with Franklin’s:
“It's like a balance; I feel it's more of her influence on me in it, and my interpretation of it rather than trying to mimic Aretha. There's only one Aretha. It focused me; 'OK, am I supposed to sing this as me, Jennifer, or am I supposed to sing it like Aretha?' How about let it be the influence of her through me and how she's helped shape my artistry throughout the years."
She sings “Natural Woman” a bit behind the beat, as Aretha also did in early live performances, and drags out some notes a bit longer and provides her own soulful punctuation at the end.
Casting Hudson as Franklin is a no-brainer, but can she make you think she’s Aretha Franklin while reminding you that she’s Jennifer Hudson at the same time?
What do you think?
Here’s Aretha performing “Natural Woman” live in 1968: