It would easy to go all hatey on Respect, a biopic of the life of Aretha Franklin, but instead let’s take it for what it is – the authorised version, the Stations of the Cross of a towering talent who even old, sick and with her voice in ruins could yank a tear, if not sobs, from the coldest of hearts. As we can see at the end of the film in actual footage from Aretha’s performance at the 2015 Kennedy Center tribute to Carole King which, perhaps unwisely, is shown over the end credits.
Jennifer Hudson never quite manages anything similar, brilliant though she is. Choose your biblical metaphor – she’s Daniel going into the lion’s den, David taking on Goliath. Except, against all expectation, they won and it’s hard to believe anyone could have triumphed here. Hudson deserves all the gongs going for trying. In the showcase finale, where she recreates Aretha’s performance singing Amazing Grace (the one that featured in the 2018 documentary of the same name), all the notes are in all the right places but something’s missing – the magic.
Trad rather than bad, Respect takes us from Aretha the child prodigy – aged maybe 10 – being fetched out of bed to sing at her minister father’s regular parties (and being interfered with by one of the guests). Then on through her struggle to assert herself as her own (natural born) woman, getting out from under first the father and then husband/manager Ted White before hitting the big time. And then further on still, through the glory years and on to the recording of the Amazing Grace documentary in 1972. At which point, wisely, since here Aretha is at the absolute peak of her career, director Liesl Tommy and writers Tracey Scott Wilson and Callie Khouri graciously brings down the curtain.
The film is shot in that reductive nicotine palette that seems popular when telling stories about black people from back in the day – as if, you know, brown skin, brown everything – the production design is also heavy on the earthy colours.
But let’s talk about the good things – Skye Dakota Turner as the young Aretha. Surely she can’t be singing, a young girl with a voice like that? She is. Damon Wayans is also spectacular as the aggressive (but understandably so, for the most part) Ted White, Forest Whitaker puts in another reliable Forest Whitaker performance as CL Franklin, tough man of god and stern patriarch. Mary J Blige is (again) underused, here as Dinah Washington, the jealous star from yesteryear who knows Aretha is going to sail right past her. Kimberly Scott as Mama Franklin. Marc Maron, after his turn as David Bowie’s fixer in Stardust, another musical role, here playing Jerry Wexler, the man who took Aretha away from John Hammond (Tate Donovan) at Columbia Records and turned her career around at Atlantic by ditching the “black Judy Garland” approach and going all in on soul (this is the man who coined the term rhythm and blues, after all). The guys playing the Muscle Shoals musicians who assisted Aretha’s rise to the top. Sketched, nicely played.
Aretha went to a dark place, she had demons, we are repeatedly told rather than shown (one drunken episode and a couple of rages notwithstanding) and her civil rights activism is also, similarly, spelled out in explication-rich scenes that seem to be there almost out of contractual obligation. By way of compensation there are a some nice Hollywood moments when the formula just comes good – like Aretha and Ted arriving at the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama, finding that everyone outside the studio is black and is picking cotton, while all the guys inside are white and insisting they can play this music. They can.
There is the music though. What made Aretha special was that she was both a musician (pianist, writer, arranger) and a singer. She both had a voice and knew how to use it. And she had some tricks up her sleeve which could lift any song, like her octave-leaps. Sometimes she’d swoop up there, other times she’d just pop a high note out from nowhere, like a golfer sinking a hole in one. Hudson cannot quite do that. No one can. And she wisely ducks the more extreme manifestations of Franklin pyrotechnics, delivering instead an impressive impression of the Queen of Soul.
Respect is what it’s called and respect is what it gives. Maybe too much.
Respect – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2022