“Respect” is a so-so biopic of Aretha Franklin that is saved by the power of Jennifer Hudson’s voice. Thus, it parallels the “Aretha” miniseries that ran earlier this year on NatGeo TV, which was only worth watching to see Cynthia Erivo’s performance as the Queen Of Soul (my review is here).
Like its predecessor, “Respect” spends way too much time — its entire first hour — focused on Franklin’s tough childhood, her extremely controlling father, and her years at Columbia Records recording jazz vocal albums that were not the right fit for her. While that backstory is important, focusing on it to that extent means we get less of the adult Franklin’s highs and lows, which began in 1967 with “I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You.” It is the process of recording that song with the musicians at Fame studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, that I most enjoyed — their interplay, helping her develop the sound and rhythm that would go on to be the basis of everything she did afterward.
However, “Respect” only follows Franklin’s career for the next five years, ignoring entirely the work she continued to do for four more decades. That’s a shame because it’s the part of her story that hasn’t been told publicly. There would have been time for more of that if the movie wasn’t so bogged down in her early years.
If the movie is to be believed, one of the problems in Franklin’s life was that her father and husband did all the talking for her — but if this is her story, approved by her estate, why don’t we hear more of her speaking up for herself in the dramatic scenes? If you’re going to make a movie about a woman whose voice could raise the roof, why give more lines of dialogue to the men in her life? The blame must be placed on director Liesl Tommy and screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson, both making their feature film debuts.
Every time I found myself disgusted by the formulaic approach of “Respect,” with all its biopic clichés and predictable plotting, we’d get another opportunity to hear Hudson sing — and she does it in Aretha’s voice, not so much an impression, but as different from her own as when foreign actors play Americans (think Hugh Laurie in “House,” Daniel Kaluuya in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” or Anya Taylor-Joy in “The Queen’s Gambit”). The musical sequences shine, but there’s nothing in between we haven’t seen before in other biopics.
As for the supporting cast, Forest Whitaker plays Aretha’s father, preacher CL Franklin, as always angry and manipulative, the same way Courtney B. Vance did in the TV mini-series. But there are solid performances from Audra McDonald as her mother, Marlon Wayans as abusive husband Ted White, and Titus Burgess as Rev. James Cleveland. Mary J. Blige steals one scene as Dinah Washington, and Marc Maron as record producer/executive Jerry Wexler does a good job of imitating Richard Schiff as Jerry Wexler in “Ray.”
The true highlight of “Respect” comes in the closing credits, when we see footage of the real Aretha Franklin singing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” in 2015 when the song’s writer, Carole King, was awarded a Kennedy Center Honor. I remember being quite moved when the footage first aired on CBS, and those same feelings came over me watching it again. Unfortunately, nothing else in “Respect” comes anywhere close.
I give “Respect” a 5 out of 10. Opens in theaters tomorrow.