'Respect' fails to capture the magic of Aretha Franklin
At the end of “Respect,” the Aretha Franklin biopic starring Jennifer Hudson as the legendary soul singer, a slew of text describes all of the awards, tributes and plaudits the singer received throughout her lifetime (and after). And as the credits roll, we get to see Franklin’s performance of “A Natural Woman” at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors. It’s incredibly awe-inspiring and moving, doubly so after the preceding two-and-a-half hours of a rather inert and confounding biopic, which is plagued by tired tropes and clunky storytelling that are an anchor on the otherwise soaring musical moments.
Written by Tracey Scott Wilson and directed by Liesl Tommy, Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin in the film that depicts her early life and career, from 1952-1972. It culminates with the recording of her live “Amazing Grace” album, which was the bestselling gospel album of all time and the bestselling album of her career (footage of the live recording was released as a documentary in 2018). The film attempts to link together her connections to the civil rights movement, her extraordinary talent and the personal challenges that Franklin faced in her young life, but the direction feels unfocused and disjointed, and overly invested in Franklin’s trauma and abusive relationships.
With such a talent as Hudson portraying the Queen of Soul, it’s not surprising that the best moments of “Respect” are the songs, whether Franklin’s belting out a tune for her father’s friends (Skye Dakota Turner plays the childhood Aretha and she’s fantastic), working out an arrangement or performing for adoring crowds. But these magical musical moments always seem to be cut short, usually abruptly ended by Franklin’s abusive husband, Ted White (Marlon Wayans).
Though Hudson of course excels musically, her performance of Aretha is a bit stiff, too focused on nailing the odd voice and accent she’s chosen. It’s an unnatural performance, rendering the character a bit alien among everyone else, and frustratingly enigmatic, even as the script insists upon, over and over again, the ways in which Aretha was disrespected, before she learned to demand her own respect.
The script has a tendency to tell rather than show, and it overexplains some things while not explaining crucial details. The timeline doesn’t flow, and it seems like the year 1968 is at least a third of the film. But what makes watching “Respect” jarring is the wild swings of the emotional pendulum from scene to scene. There’s no modulation in the transitions, resulting in emotional whiplash and tonal dissonance. Themes and issues are clumsily threaded throughout, especially Franklin’s alcoholism. It’s almost impossible to get into a proper groove with “Respect,” especially as it keeps cutting from the songs, denying what we came to see.
There’s a wealth of talent involved in this film, not the least of which is Franklin’s herself. Unfortunately, “Respect” just doesn’t capture the magic of Aretha Franklin, or even her larger than life personality. Despite ending on the “Amazing Grace” high note, the rest of the film is flat, tedious and saddled with an uneven lead performance. It’s strangely unaffecting, which no one could ever say about any Aretha Franklin live show.
Sometimes the biopic just can’t match the charisma of the real person at the center of it all, which is sadly the case with “Respect.”
2 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic content, strong language including racial epithets, violence, suggestive material, and smoking)
Running time: 2:25