How is it possible for a music-centered biopic to feature fantastic music, heartfelt performances, and a story about triumph over trauma and still end up teaching us nothing about its subject that you can’t read on her Wikipedia page? Welcome to Respect, which tells the story of the late Aretha Franklin, from her childhood to the recording of her massively successful gospel album Amazing Grace in January 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. By ending so early in her career, the film almost dares to give the impression that sequels could be made to track Franklin’s various ups and downs throughout the 1980s-’90s, and if those films were honest, they might actually be interesting. But as a document of the first 30 years of her life, Respect gives us the talking points without truly diving into the artist’s mindset during key moments of her life and career.
At every stage of her life, according to the movie, Franklin (played from about 18 on by Jennifer Hudson) was little more than a puppet of either her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin (played as a fiery, controlling brute by Forest Whitaker); her husband Ted White (Marlon Wayans, infused with charm and an underlying rage); or music producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron), who at least seemed to be capable of putting Franklin in the company of the best musicians to suit the music she wanted to play, rather than a series of heartless standards that her father demanded she play on her first few (unsuccessful) albums at Columbia, under the direction of the legendary John Hammond (Tate Donovan).
The film flies through Franklin’s childhood (she is played by Skye Dakota Turner), where she was something of a star attraction that her father would pull out at parties to sing in front of a room full of dignitaries, such as Martin Luther King Jr. (Gilbert Glenn Brown), Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige), Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, and Smokey Robinson (Lodric D. Collins), as well as her trusted mentor, the Reverend Dr. James Cleveland (Tituss Burgess). But having so many people in the house at all hours also led to Franklin getting abused and impregnated for the first time at the age of 12. The abuse is never directly addressed but it is made clear that it impacted her feelings toward men and intimacy for many years after, which seems natural. But the film glosses over it (and the presence of her kids at all) in a remarkably insensitive manner that is both frustrating and infuriating.
As detailed by a screenplay by Tracey Scott Wilson and under the direction of Liesl Tommy (a feature debut from the helmer of episodes of Queen Sugar, Jessica Jones, and Mrs. Fletcher), Franklin’s mother (Audra McDonald) died when she was young, leaving a hole in her life that was never truly filled, not even by her father’s long-time partner Clara Ward, who was a remarkably positive influence in Franklin’s life, often siding against the Reverend. Aretha’s three sisters (who ultimately sang backup for her, after having varying degrees of success as solo singers) were something of a support system for her, but she ended up always leaning into the men in her life for guidance, a habit she would have to break in order to truly become the artist she needed to be to succeed.
The film truly takes flight when Atlantic Records’ Wexler takes Franklin to the now-famed studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record material (with an all-white band, no less) for the album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. There’s a sequence in the film centered on the recording of the title track that is mesmerizing, and one of the few instances of genuine transformation in Franklin’s confidence and self-realization in herself as an artist. Hudson’s performance is somewhat muted up to this point, even when we see her coming onto men (mostly bad boys, including her future husband White). But when we are allowed to see her create music, lead a band, and sit behind the piano and work out arrangements, that’s when the performance becomes something soulful.
After this point, the rest of the film is a blur of touring, recording, hit after hit, and eventually breaking up with White and turning to alcohol to deaden the ancient pain in her life. Hudson earns our sympathy for the most part, but the moments also feel cliche (if you’ve ever seen a music biopic, you’ll be familiar with the beats). Respect runs through the creation of “Respect,” as well as performances of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” and “Think,” but it all feels obligatory rather than a true celebration of the music (I’m fairly certain that most of the performances we hear are of Hudson singing and not Franklin, but the approximation is actually remarkably faithful).
As a pure acting exercise, Hudson does an uncanny job capturing Franklin’s voice, mannerisms, and attitude, but the flawed and surface-dwelling screenplay never allows us as deep into Franklin as a person as we would like. This is the time to dig deeper than Franklin herself would usually allow. There are moments (especially in her exhausted, alcohol-fueled tirades) when I was a little embarrassed to be watching this movie. Hudson isn’t the problem; it’s the things she’s spouting that touch the tip of the iceberg of Franklin’s problems without daring to look just under the surface to see what’s there. As a result, the film nearly sinks itself. It’s certainly not unwatchable, but Respect finds so many ways to disappoint that it begins to wear down on your soul.
The film is now playing theatrically.
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