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
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.