This music biopic about the Queen of Soul follows familiar beats, but Jennifer Hudson shines singing Aretha Franklin's hefty catalogue of hits.
August 19, 2021
When Respect first breaks out its titular track, it's the original Otis Redding version that echoes in the background. The song plays in the Franklin household as Aretha (Jennifer Hudson, Cats) and her family listen, and the scene bubbles with anticipation for the thing everyone watching knows will come. Shortly afterwards, the Queen of Soul tinkers at the piano in the deep of night, her excitement buoyant after hearing her first big hit 'I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)' on the radio. Her sisters Erma (Saycon Sengbloh, Scandal) and Carolyn (Hailey Kilgore, Amazing Stories) join in, and they're all soon rearranging Redding's tune into the single that cements Aretha's status as a music superstar. For the entire film up to this point, viewers have also heard the Franklins, including patriarch and preacher CL (Forest Whitaker, City of Lies), refer to Aretha using a nickname. "Ree" they call her again and again, and soon "ree, ree, ree" is exactly what Erma and Carolyn sing on backing vocals. It's a neat and also exuberant moment. Respect quickly segues to Aretha and her sisters crooning 'Respect' at Madison Square Garden to a rapturous crowd, but watching the track come together has already proven electric. Something can be orderly and expected and potent and rousing all at once, as this movie happily demonstrates regarding its namesake — but for most of its 2.5-hour running time, Respect is content to careen between inescapably formulaic and occasionally powerful.
In other words, Respect is a standard music biopic. The genre will never stop expanding — films about Elvis, Madonna, Boy George, Bob Marley, Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston are currently in various stages of development — but flicks about famous musicians have peppered cinemas with frequency recently. Thankfully, Aretha's stint in the cinematic spotlight doesn't merely shuffle through a greatest hits album like Bohemian Rhapsody. All her well-known songs are accounted for, though, and it definitely doesn't strive to shake up the template as Rocketman managed so vividly. And with Judy and The United States vs Billie Holiday still fresh in filmgoing music-lovers' memories, Respect can't help feeling like it's striking the same beats. The faces and tunes change, but the overall journey remains undeniably similar. The fact that so many iconic female singers' stories navigate comparable paths is a horrible indictment of the way women have long been treated in the music industry; however, the fact that the movies telling their tales can't completely shake that air of familiarity can never quite do them justice.
Respect begins with young Aretha (lively debutant Skye Dakota Turner) being roused from sleep by her father to sing at one of his well-attended house parties. It's 1952, and to an audience that includes Dinah Washington, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, she breaks out a rendition of the latter's 'My Baby Likes to Be-Bop' — and "she's 10 but her voice is going on 30" is the shared reaction. This obviously isn't the last time that Aretha unleashes her astonishing voice in Respect, and that everyone in earshot reacts accordingly. When she's accosted by an unnamed man in her bedroom afterwards, it isn't the last time the film veers between highs and lows, either. First-time feature director Liesl Tommy and screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson (Fosse/Verdon) repeat that pattern, embracing it as comfortably as their key figure croons any song she chooses. But where their subject transcends every ditty she trills, Respect can't be said to do the same. Even viewers unaware of the ups and downs of Aretha's life will still know where each second of the film is headed. The choice to end with 2016 footage of the real-life singer piping '(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman' is a classic biopic touch, of course, but it's preceded by far more predictable choices again and again.
Accordingly, as a child Aretha wrestles with her mother's (Audra McDonald, Beauty and the Beast) untimely death, and her own abuse, to evolve from singing in church for her father and family friend Martin Luther King (Gilbert Glenn Brown, Stargirl) to starting her career under her dad's ferocious guidance. From there, she struggles to turn her early Columbia Records releases into successes, yearns to make music that means something to her and defies her father by marrying small-time producer Ted White (Marlon Wayans, On the Rocks). The children she has as a teenager remain with her family as her path leads to Atlantic Records, veteran record producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron, Joker) and recording with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section in Alabama, which is where early hits like 'Respect' and 'Ain't No Way' come to life. But her marriage to Ted isn't happy, and coping with his violence takes its toll. So does touring, recording and working non-stop, including when she weds her tour manager Ken Cunningham (Albert Jones, Mindhunter), and later decides to make her best-selling gospel album Amazing Grace.
It's never a smart idea to remind your audience that a better movie exists on the same topic, so the decision to recreate parts of Aretha's Amazing Grace performance — as also seen in the magnificent documentary of the same name that only reached cinemas in 2019 — is misjudged. This section of Respect does let Hudson shine, and Aretha's music do the same, though. Alongside the dazzling costuming, they're the film's biggest assets the whole way through. While the script sticks to well-worn territory, cramming its subject's story to fit the usual music biopic mould and giving the entire affair a handsome period sheen, Hudson injects power and presence into her portrayal. The Dreamgirls Oscar-winner has the talent to do Aretha's songs proud, too. But she also makes viewers wish that everything around her performance, the tunes she's singing and the clothes she's wearing didn't fall victim to the usual cliches. This film has ample respect for the woman at its centre, but it also approaches the act of bringing her life to the screen like it's simply taking care of business.