Movie Review ~ Respect

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: The rise of Aretha Franklin’s career from a child singing in her father’s church’s choir to her international superstardom.

Stars: Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Mary J. Blige, Marc Maron, Tituss Burgess, Saycon Sengbloh, Hailey Kilgore, Tate Donovan, Skye Dakota Turner, Heather Headley, Leroy McClain

Director: Liesl Tommy

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 145 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  The heat in St. Louis, MO brought me into the theater to see Respect and the hurricane-level rain and winds nearly sent me right back to the streets when the power went out during a preview for the new James Bond film No Time to Die.  Having missed the press screening for this during my vacation, I was determined to see this much-hyped Aretha Franklin film in theaters as soon as possible because I had a notion this wouldn’t be just another standard biopic which recounted the same story.  So, when the power went out and the theater ushers said we could either wait fifteen minutes or get our money back, I thought: “Hmm…wait a bit or leave in the torrential rain?”  Take a guess what we did.

I’m not going to lie to you, Respect is largely your formulaic story of the rise of a legendary singer from humble beginnings to superstardom and all the bumps and tumbles along the way.  Then again, isn’t that how it all happened in the first place?  How else is this story supposed to be told?  People are always out to complain about these types of films but there are some entities and life stories that just have to be told in a particular way and you just have to sit there for over two hours and listen to it…and if you don’t like it, you’re clearly not a fan of the artist in the first place.  The movie wasn’t made for you to begin with – so why are you reviewing the film? 

I happen to be a huge fan of Aretha Franklin and trusted that when the Queen of Soul hand picked Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson to play her, she knew what she was doing.  Even though a TV biography of her life starring Cynthia Erivo played earlier this year (to no audience or critical notice), it wasn’t approved by the Franklin estate so Respect is the one “true” story that should be considered from the point of view of the woman herself.  While Franklin, who died in 2018, didn’t live to see the movie released, her presence hangs greatly over the film and there’s ample reverence paid to her during the credits. 

Frankly, I was glad we didn’t have the messiness of the obtrusive bookends to open the film that awkwardly take us back in time to Aretha’s childhood.  Instead, screenwriters Tracy Scott Wilson and Callie Khouri just start at the very beginning (a very good, oh you know..) and show little Aretha (powerhouse Skye Dakota Turner) being woken up by Rev. C. L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey) to sing for his friends at one of his famous Saturday night parties. Asked how old she was, family friend Clara Ward (Broadway’s Heather Headley) says “She’s 10, but her voice is going on 30.” and then she proves it loud and clear.  It’s a sign that the monumental vocal instrument we all knew was always present.  Estranged from Aretha’s father, her musical mother (Audra McDonald, Beauty and the Beast) encouraged her daughter to always demand to be treated with dignity and to say “no” when she doesn’t want to do something.  It will come in handy down the road.

As Aretha grows into adulthood (the film largely skips over the children she has at 12 and 14, a sensitive subject Franklin herself was always reluctant to discuss) and begins to have a mind of her own, the larger-than-life voice starts to reflect in her attitude.  Signing with Columbia records but producing no hits, she eventually has to leave the comforts of home and the care of her father in order to record the kind of music she needs in order to have a hit record.  By this time, Aretha (Hudson, Cats) is with Ted White (Marlon Wayans, On the Rocks), a relationship that will provide most of the rocky slips and skids onscreen.  The higher Aretha climbs and the more famous people she meets, the more she tries to keep the peace with the men in her life that jostle for position as alpha in their relationship…even though she is always the Queen.

While it may seem exhausting to consider watching another story of a woman demurring to men that don’t have her best interest in mind and who often stays in relationships that cause her physical and emotional pain, it’s important to understand the context of the time and the woman living through it.  That’s what Respect and the script does better than the other films telling similar stories.  There’s far more attention paid in the direction and performances into pitching these characters just right, so that they don’t become just another battered wife, unloving parent, or ego-centric man.  That’s what keeps it from droning on as it passes the two-hour mark.

Speaking of which, the film makes it to its long length because it takes its time with the music and gives audiences full throttle versions of Franklin’s greatest hits.  What’s better, on more than one occasion we are taken step by step through the creation of the songs from a songwriting perspective as well.  Want to know where the earworm chorus for “Respect” comes from?  You’ll find out here.  Even Franklin’s historic performance of “Amazing Grace” at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles is recreated to perfection by Hudson who does new wonders with her voice as she reigns in her tendency to oversing for this most important of roles.

I guess now is as good a time as any to talk about Hudson and the incredible work that’s going on in Respect.  Going into the movie, I felt like I had a good read on how Hudson would play the role but I wasn’t quite prepared for the transformation she made into Franklin.  The way she carries herself, the way she sings, the way she speaks, it’s a head-to-toe creation by the actress that is modeled after her idol and it’s less of an impression and more of a recreation of greatness.  Those disputing the performance need to go back and watch the film again, particularly Hudson’s gut-wrenching bottoming-out scenes when Franklin was at her lowest point in relation to substance abuse.  It should be more than enough to earn her an Oscar nomination…deservedly so. 

The rest of the cast largely rises to Hudson’s level as well, even Wayans who I was initially skeptical of.  While he didn’t make it over the finish like in my good graces due to his tendency to use a strange hollow voice of speech to suggest, age?, maybe? but for the most part he’s better here than he’s been in his last twelve films combined.  Whitaker feels like he’s working himself toward another Oscar nomination in something…not in this, but something.  I’ve gone on record not loving Blige’s (Rock of Ages) acting and I still think it’s iffy but her cameo role as Dinah Washington was perfection.  I’m not totally understanding where the fanaticism for Marc Maron (Joker) is for his contributions to the movie – I like Maron’s podcast but the acting here just seems like an extension of the man instead of a stretch of the man’s talent.

Having suffered through a number of these types of films (onstage as well!), Respect could easily have found its way to a Broadway theater or, shudder, a bus and truck tour.  I’m glad those in power took the time to craft a well-tailored movie for its Oscar-winning star and even if it presents a somewhat sanitized view of the singer – it also shows the darker times as well.  Even the areas the film glosses over are at least introduced.  It may not stay there long but they are indicated…other films coughcoughBohemianRhapsodycoughcough completely skip over major happenings in order for their (still living) talent to look good.  Show some respect for the Queen of Soul and the filmmakers of Respect and catch this one in theaters.

SpaceCamp (The Movie) Turns 35

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: To be an astronaut is the dream of thousands of young people around the world. It is this dream that leads a diverse group of young Americans to enroll in Space Camp for the summer, totally unsuspecting that their “Space Play” will turn into a real mission aboard a Space Shuttle.

Stars: Kate Capshaw, Lea Thompson, Kelly Preston, Joaquin Phoenix, Larry B. Scott, Tate Donovan, Tom Skerritt, Terry O’Quinn

Director: Harry Winer

Rated: PG

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Like many kids growing up in the 1980s that hadn’t hit puberty yet, there were two things that I was constantly thinking about: space and movies about space.  I wasn’t quite into the physics and science involved with the exploration of space, but the possibility of it all was of great interest to me and I definitely fell asleep on more than one occasion thinking about what it would be like to achieve liftoff from Earth on the Space Shuttle.  My view of outer space had been molded by science fiction that was clearly meant as entertainment but also in news reports about the evolving space program that was making continued strides forward with renewed public energy after a period of dormancy.  It just all stimulated my young mind, and I’d jump at every chance I’d get to soak up knowledge, whether at our local Science Museum of MN, in an episode of NOVA airing on PBS, or, yes, even cracking open a textbook or two in school.

The epitome of all knowledge regarding space for a child of the ‘80s was SpaceCamp in Huntsville, Alabama and while I never attended, oh boy did I try to persuade my parents to make it happen.  By the time it was my turn to venture out to test the waters of overnight camp, I was a tad too young to make the journey that far south and so my summer experience was limited to the YMCA camps in the (admittedly gorgeous) North Woods of MN.  It was actually at one of these camps a few years later that I learned a movie about SpaceCamp was made and let me tell you, time practically stood still for my remaining stay until I could get home and make it to my local video store to claim my VHS copy and see what I had been missing.

I couldn’t have known then when I saw SpaceCamp for the first time all the circumstances that surrounded the film which contributed to its poor reception, dooming its scheduled summer release ever since that fateful day on January 28, 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger experienced its fatal accident 73 seconds into its journey.  Killing all seven crew members aboard, including high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, the launch had been broadcast on television as many had been before, so the world got a real time view of the disaster.  Along with people remembering where they were the day Kennedy was shot and during 9/11, I remember being in school and hearing an announcement over our PA system about the incident.  Our teacher tried to offer some explanation for our first-grade hearts and minds to take in but how do you explain that to such young souls?

With a finished film about a crew of young kids accidentally blasted into space and put into numerous scenes of peril, ABC Motion Pictures was left with a huge dilemma of what to do with their movie.  At a cost of 18 million dollars to produce and a plum June release date, it wasn’t something they could just write off; but could they still release a film that, while not entirely similar, had overlapping themes with the Challenger accident?  Unlike today where a streaming service may have stepped in to offer a smaller tiered release, the studio had little option but to release it and, as expected, the film was shunned by critics and audiences who felt it infringed upon the mourning the country was still experiencing.  Judging the film by that criteria isn’t very fair because it was wrapped long before the seven brave souls boarded the Challenger that January morning.  That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of reason to take SpaceCamp to task for its numerous implausibilities and clichéd dialogue and over time the film has lived and died in the public eye on its own merit.  The journey out from under that shadow wasn’t easy, though.

How is the movie, celebrating its 35th anniversary in 2021, you may ask?  Though it enjoyed many multiple night stays in my home between 1987-1990, I hadn’t seen the film in probably a decade or more and it didn’t take long for the nostalgia of it all to kick in.  The movie wears its Reagan-era influences like a badge of honor with hairstyles, clothes, and soundtrack all turned up to 10.  Thankfully, the performances don’t follow the garish design or music choices and I was surprised by what a solid acting ensemble director Harry Winer put together. 

Aside from Kate Capshaw (Dreamscape) and Tom Skerritt (Steel Magnolias) as the requisite adults, there’s good work from Lea Thompson (JAWS 3-D), fresh off of Back to the Future as an ambitious go-getter, the late Kelly Preston (Twins) playing a free spirit that’s all glitter and glam, Revenge of the Nerds’ Larry B. Scott as a nerd that tends to fold under pressure, and Tate Donovan (Rocketman) appearing in his first role as the trust fund brat about to learn a lesson in working as team.  True, it’s a check list of types and personalities along with their expected hang-ups, but it’s a far cry from the clear equality by design method employed today. This group is supposedly matched at random and it looks that way. Yes, that’s a very young Joaquin Phoenix (here credited as Leaf Phoenix) as the junior member of the squad, long before he would win an Oscar for his own shoot-for-the-moon performance in Joker.

Chances are if you’ve read this far you know a little something about the plot of SpaceCamp, so I won’t go too much further into it, only to say that watching it now it’s pretty pointless to hold it to any kind of scientific fact checking.  We’ll overlook some patently deadly gaffes, like the young team wearing what appears to be astronaut/motorcycle helmets with face shields that are up for the entire blast off and other key moments of their unplanned voyage into space.  There is no mention of needing oxygen to breathe during their transition from the Earth into orbit…until they start to run out and need to make a daring connection with the space station, resulting in a tense space walk that has its own set of head shaking (as in “no”) sequences. The no-gravity scenes are kind of a hoot too, with some wires either evident or the actors doing their best to wave their bodies and arms from side to side to simulate the anti-gravity of space.  Let’s not also forget the entire reason they are in space is because a rogue robot that Phoenix befriends takes it upon itself to reprogram NASA’s computers to force the Space Shuttle into a launch or else the fuel tanks will explode.  Never mind that if the robot calculated wrong, he might have killed his human friend in the process of helping him reach the stars.

For how silly the entire business is, I don’t think you can watch the film (now or then) and not say that it isn’t captivating or successful in keeping your engagement for much of the duration.  This is owed to the cast taking the material seriously, not so serious it turns campy, but serious in that they don’t let their characters come off looking like goofballs for being invested in having the knowledge to navigate through a crisis.  Preston initially is introduced as wanting to be a “the first cosmic DJ” and Scott wants to open an intergalactic chain of restaurants.  That might get some chortles now but back in 1986…who knew what the future held the way things were headed?  Capshaw helps to keep everything grounded and for my money is the true MVP of the show.  Clearly the 107 minute adventure is obviously targeted at teens and Capshaw’s brittle teacher who hasn’t gotten her own shot at full-fledged astronaut isn’t intended to be the central figure, but when I watch it now, she leaves the biggest impression.  While she’s mostly Mrs. Steven Spielberg now, Capshaw was a reliably dependable actress in her day, and this is quite a good example of how warm she could be even when playing cold.

Over the last three decades since it played in theaters, SpaceCamp has found its way out of the gloom and doom it opened under back in the summer of 1986, but the memory of the Challenger is hard to shake off even now.  In the special features on the BluRay that was released several years back, both Thompson and director Winer speak about experiences they’ve had where fans of the movie have told them how seeing SpaceCamp served as the inspiration for their own journey into the field of science and that’s worth noting.  Even a cheesy teen sci-fi adventure that I can imagine was originally designed as little more than an advertisement for a NASA-affiliated summer camp can have an impact all these years later.  With its rather beautiful score by multiple Oscar winner John Williams (Jurassic Park), more than serviceable direction from Winer, and strong performances from its cast of seasoned veterans and newcomers, SpaceCamp might be held together by duct tape at times but it has weathered the last 35 years well.

Movie Review ~ Rocketman

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The story of Elton John’s life, from his years as a prodigy at the Royal Academy of Music through his influential and enduring musical partnership with Bernie Taupin.

Stars: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard

Director: Dexter Fletcher

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Fair is fair and I have to say right off the bat I was really rooting for Rocketman leading up to its release date. It’s not just because I’m a fan of Elton John or star Taron Egerton or that I was craving something with a different kind of movie magic than we’ve had so far in a strong 2019. Deep down, I wanted it to be better than Bohemian Rhapsody. There. I said it. I wanted it to best the 2018 biopic that was kinda about Freddie Mercury and kinda about Queen but ultimately not really about either because it couldn’t be fully honest about anything. That it went on to make so much money wasn’t a huge surprise considering the lasting impacting of Queen but it’s staying power in the cultural conversation was truly something to stand in awe of. I still haven’t fully come to terms that Rami Malek walked away with a Best Actor Oscar for his hammy, bug-eyed portrayal of Mercury. It’s a performance that almost instantly aged poorly and after seeing how right Egerton gets it as Elton John I think you’ll agree.

So yes…this was one I wanted to like but was more than ready to pounce on if it went down the same rose-colored glasses wearing path tread by Malek and company last year. Thankfully, every tear that wasn’t shed and thrill I didn’t feel in Bohemian Rhapsody were felt doubly in Rocketman. Here’s the right approach to find your way to the heart of a biopic: take a life story and tailor the film to the colorful character at its center. A film biography of Elton John would never have fit within your standard “and then he became a star” formulaic movie and screenwriter Lee Hall wisely knows that. Working with director Dexter Fletcher (who, in an weird twist of fate, took over directing duties for the last three weeks of Bohemian Rhapsody), Hall tells of John’s genesis in a sometimes surreal, often fantastical, always musical fashion and it’s a yellow brick winner.

Growing up in affluent Middlesex, Reginald Kenneth Dwight showed a knack for playing the piano just by ear at an early age. Though clearly a prodigy, he found little support from a selfish mother (Bryce Dallas Howard, Pete’s Dragon) and emotionally cold father (Steven Mackintosh, Kick-Ass 2) until his grandmother (Gemma Jones, Bridget Jones’s Baby) offered to take him to lessons with the Royal Academy of Music. An awkward adolescence led to his early adulthood as a pianist for visiting soul and R&B acts. Answering an ad for songwriters, the newly renamed Elton John came to Liberty Records, a fortuitous job inquiry as this is where he’d be paired with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) who would become his collaborator for the next fifty years (and counting!).

With hit songs garnering acclaim in the UK and sending them on a tour to America and the famed Troubadour nightclub, Elton and Bernie experienced celebrity at a time of extreme excess. Any kind of fantasy you want is yours. Any drug you desire is within your reach. No dream is too small if you have the money to pay for it. The more cash they bring in and the higher Elton’s star rises, the greater the divide between the close friends becomes…driven further apart by John’s substance abuse and his tortured relationship with his business (and romantic) partner John Reid (Richard Madden, Cinderella).

This true story of the meteoric rise of Elton’s early career, troubled mid-life, and eventual redemption is told using the soundtrack of the music he created with Taupin. It’s not wall-to-wall music and at 121 minutes it’s perhaps ten minutes shorter than it had to be but Fletcher takes that trim running length to keep things moving at high velocity like it’s central character. The songs are used creatively and not always in the order they were written and it’s nice to hear nearly all the main actors get the chance to use their voices at some point.  While it’s not a comprehensive documentation of the Elton/Bernie catalog, the film finds clever ways of getting brief bits of songs in at various points throughout.  Keep your ears open…especially for instrumental tracks.

The bulk of the singing and almost the entirety of the movie, rests on Egerton’s capable shoulders and he more than stands up to the challenge. Looking back at the wild looks Elton has worn onstage over the years gives you one part of the puzzle that is the singer and it’s up to Egerton to show us the side we haven’t had the opportunity to see yet. Thankfully, Elton appears to have given the filmmakers carte blanche to include what they wanted.  While the film doesn’t shy away from his dependence on drugs, alcohol, and other vices it doesn’t portray him as an unwilling participant either. This is no pity party for a man who took a very active role in his drug abuse.

Egerton commits 150% to the role and anything less would have been phoning it in.  He takes every costume piece and accessory to the max and he dances and sings like a dream.  By the actor finding his groove with such verve, it allows us to buy what Egerton is selling…like when Elton describes himself as fat.  Though they try to bulk him up by putting him in any number of wide corduroy jackets and neckerchiefs, there’s no way Egerton has extra poundage to emulate the roly poly musician when he was a youth.  He does better in Elton’s later years when he’s losing his hair and the ravages of drugs and alcohol are beginning to take their toll.

Supporting Egerton nicely are Bell as talented lyricist Taupin.  It’s always strange (or, a little bit funny?)  to see Bell so grown-up all these years after Billy Elliot and I’m surprised we didn’t see him dancing at some point in the movie.  Madden and Egerton take on ‘Honkey Cat’ for a laugh and while Madden won’t be recording a CD anytime soon he acquits himself nicely.  Howard and Mackintosh have difficult roles as the enduring villains of the film but they don’t cut their characters any slack, making the final moments of the film that much more impactful.  For a full on camp performance, look no further than Tate Donovan (Argo) as outlandish Troubadour owner Doug Weston…I like Donovan but boy did I wince every time he nearly flew away onscreen.  I also thought a brief appearance by Dutch stage star Celinde Schoenmaker as Elton’s wife (!) was interesting and wanted more time with Kiki Dee (Rachel Muldoon, Mary Poppins Returns)…but who doesn’t?

Fletcher has a nice eye for keeping things visually interesting and not just in the costume department. Small scenes give way to large choreographed numbers that burst with energy and a few of these key moments create goosebump shivers up your spine. A transition from young Elton to Egerton’s Elton in the middle of ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ comes at the same moment when highly physical dancing is kicked up a notch. Then there’s the quiet scene on an ordinary day when Bernie gives Elton the lyrics to ‘Your Song’ and the entire house stops what they’re doing to listen to Elton find his way through the notes to the melody that is so instantly familiar – it’s truly a magic moment.

What Hall and Fletcher miss on are opportunities to go a little deeper with the material or finish their thoughts in scenes that are building to an emotional climax. On more than one occasion I felt a scene was heading toward a resolution only to have it interrupted by a musical number. I know you can only get so much of a life into a two hour movie and you’re never going to get the whole story but key characters get touched on so little you wonder why they were included at all. Elton’s brief marriage of convenience is one example. I know why it’s there but it’s not given any true emotional weight, nor is there some finality with a few of the characters that deserve some rounding of the rough edges we’re left with.

Yet even with these examples of the movie skimming the surface instead of taking a deep dive, it has great emotional resonance. Elton’s sexuality is spoken about with casual frankness…as are opinions of those who don’t accept him for who is. I applaud everyone involved (including the studio) for keeping in the moments that show two men together and don’t treat it as lascivious or wrong or something for anyone to be ashamed of. Even if it makes the film overall more of a tough sell to some audiences, it’s dealing in honesty first and that’s commendable.  I wasn’t expecting the movie to choke me up as much as it did but on several occasions I was greatly moved by what was happening onscreen.

I was lucky enough to see Elton John in concert earlier this year on his final tour and it dovetailed nicely into seeing this biopic. Though his range is smaller than it used to be and he rarely came out from behind his piano, he held a sold out crowd completely captive for two and a half hours based almost solely on the strength of his music. That is the true sign of an artist. I’d have loved to see Rocketman arrive in theaters a year earlier because then Bohemian Rhapsody would have arrived in its shadow and been held under some scrutiny for the facts it fudges and it’s almost pathological need to please instead of tell the truth. This music-filled life-story of Elton John isn’t afraid to be a warts-and-all look into his world and still have the audience on his side when the credits roll.