A biopic perfectly suited to one of history's greatest performers.
Aretha Franklin deserves a biopic as good as she was as “The Queen of Soul” and a sterling human being. Well, she has it all in director Liesl Tommy’s Respect, a warm-hearted paean to the 18-time Grammy winner and multiple other honors including the highest civilian award from the president of the United States. As we have learned from the lives of storied singers, it wasn’t easy.
Although some of Franklin’s biography is the stuff of cliché, such as a domineering father, an abusive husband, and addiction to alcohol, Respect is an honest, straightforward recounting of these tropes with the exception that Franklin was a better human being than most icons and arguably more talented.
As Jennifer Hudson plays her, you cannot help but love her vulnerability, her willingness to please her audience and her men, her devotion to family, and her breathless talent. Hudson thankfully doesn’t try to imitate Franklin so much as inhabit her, or channel her if you will, so that the slightly-long treatment of her youth and the first dozen or so professional years speed by.
I long to see her in another recording session like the first at Columbia Records with a roomful of Southern jazz players helping her find her voice, her way to R & B royalty, albeit in the crucible of racist white men making her talent grow even stronger in her feminist, Black defiance, as inexorable as the civil rights movement itself.
For me, the film has fireworks every time she enters a session, even late at night in her home when she and her sisters massage Otis Redding’s Respect into a world-class classic of her own.
Hudson should scoop up an Oscar nomination, not just because she catches Franklin’s spirit but also because as a singer and actor, she is watchable on her own—her girl-next-door exterior, her sweet longing to ingratiate, her ambition to get “hits,” and her singular ability to belt a song almost as electrifying as the queen herself does.
However, this biopic is an ensemble affair, and Forest Whitaker as her influential father, C.L., and Audra McDonald as her encouraging mother are successful representations of family and celebrity clashing. That Martin Luther King is a personal friend of her father and subsequently of her shows the dignity and power of father and daughter. Marlon Wayans as Aretha’s first husband, Ted White, is an embodiment of the pencil-thin mustachioed, dictator-womanizing creep who shows up in so many of these biographies.
Respect brings honor to one of our nation’s greatest artists—see it in theaters to believe it and mostly feel its magnificence.
Director: Liesl Tommy (Jessica Jones)
Screenplay: Tracy Scott Wilson (Do No Harm)
Cast: Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls), Forest Whitaker (The Crying Game)
Run Time: 2h 25m
John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts NPR's WCBE's It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at JohnDeSando62@gmail.com