Review: ‘Respect’ is an enjoyable ode to Aretha Franklin, biopic clichés and all
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There are moments when “Respect,” an uneven, prosaic but affecting new movie starring Jennifer Hudson as a young Aretha Franklin, comes close to pinpointing something true and revealing about its subject’s art. That may sound like faint praise, but it’s closer than many musician biopics get. Watch enough and their clichés start to sound like greatest hits: the troubled childhood marked by flashes of genius; the record deals and album cover montages; the marriages torn asunder by addiction, abuse and the ravages of fame. The music becomes a soundtrack at best and an afterthought at worst, something to paper over the gaps between traumas and milestones.
“Respect,” glossily produced, skillfully performed and notably developed by Franklin herself before her death in 2018, doesn’t entirely avoid these traps. But as directed by Liesl Tommy, making a solid feature debut, it rarely stumbles right into them. The script, by playwright and TV writer Tracey Scott Wilson, may be a thinner, more flattering account than this year’s unauthorized miniseries “Genius: Aretha,” but it also makes a virtue of some of its conventions, investing well-worn notes with fresh reserves of emotion. That’s fitting, insofar as part of Franklin’s brilliance lay in her ability to riff on well-loved standards; her 1972 gospel album, “Amazing Grace,” the production of which draws the story to a close, is a transcendent example. The song that gives the movie its title is another.
“That’s Otis Redding’s song,” someone protests in the early stages of Aretha’s soon-to-be-definitive reworking. (“Otis who?” comes the eventual rejoinder.) The unveiling of that 1967 all-timer provides a rousing mid-movie payoff that Hudson, whom Franklin personally selected for the role, tears into with unsurprising aplomb. But in some ways, the songwriting scene that precedes it is even more enjoyable: Aretha is up late with her sisters, Carolyn (Hailey Kilgore) and Erma (Saycon Sengbloh), teasing out the beats and flourishes that will make this version so memorable, including the infectious chorus of “Ree, Ree, Ree, Ree” — a Ree-petition derived from Aretha’s childhood nickname.
Did it really happen that way? Did Aretha’s caddish first husband and manager, Ted White (played here by a terrific Marlon Wayans), really come storming out of the bedroom, grumbling about the lateness of the hour? Who knows. Like a lot of scenes in Wilson’s script (drawn from a story she’s credited with alongside Callie Khouri), it feels neatly constructed to reinforce bedrock themes. It reminds us that while Franklin’s spellbinding talent was nurtured by her family’s collaborative musicianship, there were a lot of men who tried to control that talent, the very men who most needed to hear “Respect” and its mighty blast of defiance.
They included Aretha’s influential father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin (an imposing Forest Whitaker), a pillar of the Black church in 1950s Detroit and an embodiment of the tightly interwoven forces — family, religion, activism, music — that will shape Aretha and nearly tear her apart. In the opening scene, he trots out his extraordinarily talented 10-year-old daughter (a very good Skye Dakota Turner) to sing and wow the crowd at one of his house parties. But it’s Aretha’s New York-based mother, the gospel singer Barbara Siggers Franklin (Audra McDonald), who leaves the deeper impression, warning her not to let her father or anyone else exploit her gift — and a gift it is, to be given back to God and God alone.
The rest of the movie will chart Aretha’s flight from that core spiritual truth and her overdue, triumphant return to it. Bouncing from Detroit to Birmingham, Ala., to New York City and beyond, it’s a prodigal journey paved with chart-topping highs and soul-crushing lows, starting with Barbara’s untimely death, which sends the young Aretha into silence for weeks. She finds her voice again at her father’s pulpit, morphing in one sequence from the sweet-voiced Turner into the full-throated Hudson as the camera swirls ecstatically around her. (The widescreen cinematography is by Kramer Morgenthau.)
Finding her voice as an artist, however, will prove more difficult. And Hudson’s tricky, impressive, fitfully persuasive performance seems to embody that difficulty almost too well. It’s not just that Hudson, even when sporting a ’60s updo and clad in Clint Ramos’ radiant costumes, is less physically evocative of Franklin than, say, Cynthia Erivo was in “Genius: Aretha.” Imitation can be the sincerest form of flattening, and like Diana Ross in “Lady Sings the Blues” (or, more recently, Renée Zellweger in “Judy”), Hudson wisely pursues emotional truth over exacting mimicry. And her vocals are unsurprisingly superb; while you can sometimes hear her strain for the upper register that Franklin conquered so effortlessly, her singing is as electric and fully felt here as in “Dreamgirls,” the movie that won her an Oscar 15 years ago.
Indeed, as in “Dreamgirls,” Hudson seems to express her character’s feelings more vividly in song than in dialogue — hardly a fatal flaw in a musical, though it does leave a nagging emotional vagueness at the heart of some of the more straightforward dramatic scenes. That’s partly by design: If the aim is to capture the spirit rather than the letter of Franklin’s immense presence, that spirit in “Respect” is still unformed. The Aretha we see is calculating, hesitant and sometimes even deferential, not yet possessed of the strong artistic identity and music-industry savvy that would define her reign as the Queen of Soul.
Asked what kind of music she wants to sing, Aretha confesses, “I want hits. I just want hits.” So do the men who help and hinder her, starting with her father, who orchestrates her entry into the biz and curtails her participation in the protests led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Gilbert Glenn Brown), a close family friend. Aretha escapes her father’s clutches by marrying the wheeling-and-dealing Ted, but he turns out to be just as domineering and considerably more abusive. A deal with Columbia Records, where she works with producer John Hammond (Tate Donovan), will pull Aretha in several directions, resulting in a string of records with little clear sense of musical purpose.
One of the slyer insights of “Respect” is that for a while, Franklin’s great versatility — her ability to sing anything and everything — is also an obstacle, one that she won’t surmount until she teams with Atlantic Records and the legendary producer Jerry Wexler (a sly, affectionate turn by Marc Maron). He sends Aretha to record with a scrappy all-white band in Muscle Shoals, Ala., a decision that Ted nearly derails in scenes marked by a dangerous mix of racial tensions and clashing male egos. But the creative and commercial payoffs are undeniable. Hudson’s soft-spoken Aretha surges to life — and so does the movie — during the recording sessions, whether she’s tweaking the arrangement on her first big hit, “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)” or forging an unexpected camaraderie with the Muscle Shoals crew.
In these scenes, Hudson captures something of Aretha’s brilliance as not only a singer but also a songwriter, someone whose collaborative instincts and deep musical knowledge reinforce every line, beat and trilling glissando. There’s more feeling, more insight into who she is in these performances — which include “Ain’t No Way,” “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” and a sadly truncated “I Say a Little Prayer” — than in the rote, lurching scenes of domestic discord that eventually set in, as Aretha’s marriage to Ted disintegrates and her mounting struggles with alcohol take centerstage.
“Respect” is less than persuasive as an addiction drama and vague in its sense of Franklin as a political figure, some nods to her performance at Dr. King’s funeral and her support for Angela Davis aside. But there’s an admirable discretion in the way Tommy and Wilson handle certain other aspects of their heroine’s trauma: Rather than rubbing the camera in her experiences of physical and sexual abuse, they reveal those experiences in increments, using staccato flashbacks that suggest the return of repressed memories — or, as they’re referred to here, her “demons.”
Movingly, “Respect” also acknowledges her angels. Those guardians take many forms, some of them prominently featured in the movie’s splendid ensemble: McDonald’s Barbara is one of them, as is another legend, Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige), who gives Aretha the best tough-love pep talk imaginable. And then there’s her recommitment to gospel and God with “Amazing Grace,” a landmark that was reconsecrated a few years ago with the release of the long-buried documentary of the same title. That film remains by no small margin the greatest Aretha Franklin movie ever, and it throws this one’s achievements and limitations into sharp relief. “Respect” is fine, fitfully rousing, even respectable. And sometimes, it’s something more.
Rating: PG-13, for mature thematic content; strong language including racial epithets, violence and suggestive material; and smoking
Running time: 2 hours, 24 minutes
Playing: Starts Aug. 13 in general release
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