When legends leave us, they are memorialized, either in their posthumous albums or on screen. Some depictions are accurate, while others take liberties with the fictional aspects of a musician’s glamorous life, riddled with rumors and whispers of what took place behind the scenes.
Before Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, passed away, she was adamant on one thing: she handpicked Jennifer Hudson to portray her in film. The film, “Respect” was released earlier this year, but after watching Hudson sing her heart out, settle into these five other films that explore the highs and lows of other legendary female musicians.
Like Franklin, Bessie Smith was widely regarded as one of the best singers of her era. Branded the Empress of the Blues, Smith has had a major influence on jazz and vocalists for decades. The HBO biopic, starring the multi-hyphenated Queen Latifah, was two decades in the making. The film chronicles her life, including her friendship with the great Ma Rainey, how she dealt with racism, her tumultuous love affairs, and a decade-long career. Director Dee Rees spoke to HBO about the influence of the film and said she hoped that audiences would take away the domino effect of jazz on generations to come:
“I want them to feel that the blues is and remains a continuum, particularly with women singing the blues. Ma set it up for Bessie, Bessie set it up for Billie, Billie set it up for Nina and it continues today. I want them to see that the blues isn’t a dead language, that it’s vital because it’s a political and social protest. And the blues have a power that still exists.”
This iconic film was released just two years after the iconic singer was shot to death by the leader of her fan club. The film was presented as a balm for Selena’s family and friends, who were not only still mourning, but wanted the truth about Selena’s family and artistry to be accurately represented. Over the years, memories of Selena are imbued with nostalgia and the comfort of this film. It’s also the film that catapulted Jennifer Lopez, who portrayed Selena, into superstardom.
Similar to Rock’n Roll, jazz produced some of the best artists to come out in decades. Billie Holiday, known for the haunting song, “Strange Fruit,” was a shining star in Harlem clubs during the 1930s and 40s. Decades after her death, her 1956 biography served as inspiration for the film, “Lady Sings the Blues.” Diana Ross starred in the biopic, which not only served as a jumping point for her solo career after leaving the Supremes — but earned Ross her only Oscar nomination.
Holiday’s life story has intrigued generations of listeners and pop culture fanatics. While the aforementioned biopic focused on her music and her struggle with addiction, director Lee Daniels took a different route and focused on her activism in the film “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” For Black entertainers, the line between entertainment and politics was thin. From racism to playing in clubs to her arrest for protesting lynching, Holiday — like many of her era and beyond — could have been considered a civil rights activist. But it paid off, with Andra Day winning a Golden Globe for her performance.
Tina Turner is widely regarded as the Queen of Rock ‘n Roll. From her flashy outfits to high energy stage presence, she’s cemented herself as a living legend. Based on Turner’s biography, “I, Tina: My Life Story,” the 1993 film, “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” starred Angela Bassett and follows Tina’s life — from meeting Ike and the demise of their marriage to becoming the woman she is today. Turner would later go on to claim that the events in the movie weren’t accurate.