Aretha Franklin might not have lived to see Respect on the screen but Jennifer Hudson shines in the new biopic about the Queen of Soul.
The thing about biopics, let alone musical biopics, is figuring out where you want to focus the story. You have to go about the right angle because once you commit to depicting a lengthy time period, a film either will work or it won’t. Respect doesn’t spend much time focusing in on Aretha Franklin’s youth (Skye Dakota Turner as a child, Jennifer Hudson as an adult). However, it shows us the trauma she experienced before turning ten years old in Detroit and would no doubt impact her as an adult. There’s a scene in the bedroom where we never see what happens. But given what happens during the very next scene, it’s easy to make an assumption. Factor that with Franklin’s mom dying shortly thereafter and one understands the hurt.
When we get to Franklin’s life as a young adult, she’s touring with her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker) during they heyday of the Civil Rights movement. Aretha got to know the likes of Dr. Martln Luther King as a result of her father’s celebrity status. Her father mentored the late Civil Rights leader! It’s not long before Aretha signs on with John Hammond (Tate Donovan) and Columbia Records. Franklin mostly sung jazz and covers at Columbia with her father controlling her career. The move to Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron) and Atlantic Records would come in 1966. And with the move, the hits would finally start taking her to the next level of international stardom. Watching the film doesn’t feel like a Wikipedia biography come to life although Hudson’s performance as Franklin stretches at least 1960-1972.
By bringing out Franklin’s flaws, we’re able to see a full portrait of the Queen of Soul. Nobody is 100% perfect–this much we know. Despite being an international star, Franklin also had her flaws as a person. We see this especially come through on screen with her turning to alcohol in the early 1970s. Without displaying this side of her, the film would merely be just Jennifer Hudson displaying a cosplay performance in essence. Franklin returned to her gospel roots, recorded what would become a bestselling album and also filmed a documentary in 1972. Unfortunately, the latter would end up getting shelved until 2018. This also speaks to the power of art and how important it can be for healing.
Respect was one of many victims to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Initially planned for a 2020 release, the studio pulled it and now it’s finally being released in theaters. Frances Mcdormand must be breathing a sigh of relief because Jennifer Hudson is absolutely superb in Respect. It’s a good bet that Oscar will come calling Hudson’s name again. I don’t say this lightly because I was blown away by her performance. Handpicked by Franklin for the role, to say that Hudson delivers is not an understatement. It comes through in every scene and in every song note. Musical biopics are not an easy feat but Liesl Tommy hits a home run with her feature directorial debut.
By the time the final scene comes to an end, it’s hard to believe one just sat for nearly two and half hours. This speaks to just how the film runs on a very quick pace. Also, it’s one of the few films this year that will make you want to sing and dance along. Or maybe that’s just me while listening to “Respect” and “Think.” The filmmakers save the best performance for last and you’ll know it when you see it. There’s honestly no better clip to use when it comes to showing the real Aretha Franklin in all of her glory. Even in her final years, Franklin could still deliver a powerful performance. Many of us saw it on TV or online the next day when Franklin paid tribute to Carole King by singing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” during the Kennedy Center Honors.
In all, the filmmakers have given audiences a film that’s worth seeing. Aretha Franklin is a compelling subject and while the music will get audiences to watch, Respect tells a story that is more than just a montage of songs. At the end of the day, we’re sitting in the theater (or waiting to watch on VOD/home video due to the pandemic) because of Aretha Franklin’s story.
DIRECTOR: Liesl Tommy
SCREENWRITER: Tracey Scott Wilson
CAST: Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Marc Maron, Tituss Burgess, Kimberly Scott, Saycon Sengbloh, Hailey Kilgore, Heather Headley, Skye Dakota Turner, Tate Donovan, and Mary J. Blige