Aretha Franklin's Music Saves 'Respect' from Being a By-the-Numbers Biopic Directed by Liesl Tommy
Starring Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Marc Maron, Tituss Burgess
Published Aug 12, 2021By all accounts, Aretha Franklin was a fiercely private individual who needed to be in control of her own narrative. Her friendship with music biographer David Ritz ended after he published Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin in 2004 — a decidedly more raw and honest portrait than the autobiography the two had previously written together, 1999's Aretha: From These Roots. It's no surprise, then, that Franklin was heavily involved in the development of her biopic up until her passing in 2018, even personally selecting Jennifer Hudson for the lead role.
Respect traces Franklin's career, beginning as a child performing for her dad's dinner guests and ending with the live recording of Amazing Grace in 1972. Her early years with Columbia Records, the creation of her most notable hits, her activism, and some key performances are all touched on. The film also explores aspects of Franklin's troubled personal life, including her alcoholism, abusive marriage to Ted White (Marlon Wayans), and shaky relationship with her father (Forest Whitaker).
Given Franklin's displeasure with Ritz's 2004 book, it's questionable that she would have been happy with how much Respect reveals. However, by making viewers privy to the darker moments of Franklin's life, the pay off of her "Respect" and "Amazing Grace" performances increases tenfold. (It should be noted that her two childhood pregnancies are acknowledged in the film, but, perhaps out of respectful restraint, are given minimal screen time).
To capture the spirit of the Queen of Soul is a high order, and, unfortunately, Respect doesn't quite meet the challenge. The film follows the biopic formula to a fault, clinically moving from Event A to B to C with a superficial brush. Rather than seeing a cohesive mural, we're given a collection of snapshots pasted together.
When director Liesl Tommy does choose to slow the film down and take the time to properly explore what made Aretha Franklin the woman she was, Respect is at its most compelling. Generational trauma and the PTSD Franklin experienced because of childhood abuse and a violent marriage provide a great deal of insight into her life and work. Her family's desire to "be proper" and effectively assimilate into white society touches on wider issues that provide context to Franklin's attitudes and outlook on the world.
Unsurprisingly, Hudson nails each and every musical performance in Respect. There's absolutely no doubt why Franklin chose her. However, when Hudson isn't singing, there are times her portrayal becomes an obvious impersonation of Franklin, taking viewers out of the world.
The concert recreations at Madison Square Garden and in Amsterdam are good, but it's the recording studio scenes that show off Franklin's musical talent. In these moments, Hudson is in her element. She comfortably moves in the space working with the other musicians/actors showing how hits like "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)" were created.
Respect ends with a clip of Franklin performing "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors — a reminder of the great legacy she left behind. Aretha Franklin was a diva in all the best ways and a woman who gained strength from her mistakes. And an icon of Franklin's calibre is, quite frankly, deserving of a more creative cinematic treatment. The film should renew interest in her career and possibly introduce a whole new generation to her music — and in that way, Respect has done its job. (Universal)