Review: Jennifer Hudson shines, but Aretha Franklin deserves more 'Respect' in tame biopic
Courtesy of MGM
Expertly chosen to play world-renowned Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, Jennifer Hudson shines playing the Detroit native though Lisel Tommy’s well intentioned biopic “Respect” fails at understanding the iconic singer’s struggles and triumphs. Split into three acts: from childhood to teenager to adult and making the interesting choice of ending the film in the late ‘70s, leaving wide open plains of Franklin’s career untouched, “Respect” never feels rooted in the story it wants to tell. If not for Hudson, who very well could find herself in the awards conversation later this year, there wouldn’t be much to write home about.
And Hudson is remarkable down to every minuscule detail: the vocal cadence, posture, and, obviously, the pipes. This is Hudson’s vehicle, but the screenplay penned by Tracey Scott Wilson and Callie Khouri, as is usually the case in rousing biopics about inspirational and prolific icons, peppers in stingy dialogue stolen from the Lifetime channel: “Your daddy doesn’t own your voice,” young Aretha (played by the extremely gifted Skye Dakota Turner) is told in the films opening minutes. Later, in a dressing room after a gig leaves her broken and battered, she’s asked; “What music do YOU want to sing?” And the obligatory “music will save your life” is thrown in for good measure. The message is clear: Aretha must find her voice – why keep hitting us over the head with it?
Most of “Respect” reiterates how little Franklin, called “Ree-Ree” by family and friends, got any respect. Her complicated relationship with dad: minister C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker finding the range in an awkwardly written role designed as the savior and bad guy) and manager/abusive husband, Ted White (Marlon Waynes, who deserves credit for stepping outside his comfort zone, but some of the tougher emotional beats fail to land) are given sizable chunks of screen time, which, ironically enough, felt underutilized during the two-and-a-half-hour journey.
Tommy and Hudson really gel during the studio recording sessions (where the wonderful Marc Maron playing legendary music producer Jerry Wexler comes into play). Wexler was instrumental in helping Franklin become a worldwide smash, and when the film transports audiences to Alabama, and a band of white accompanists start grooving to Franklin’s style, and the freewheeling attitude of the singer’s posh and dexterity comes into focus, “Respect” finds rhythm. Of course, the film wouldn’t feel like a real biopic attempt without late night pow wow that birthed the titular song, and when the film takes a break from quick montages (the entire span of Franklin’s nine album run prior to her first smash is a blip on the radar) and embraces the singer’s soulfulness, it sings.
But just as quickly the film ropes you in with Hudson’s dynamic portrayal, the script curls into a ball of frustration. Throwaway side conversations with Martin Luther King Jr (Gilbert Glenn Brown) about Franklin’s intent of marching in the civil rights movement briefly tackle her commitment to the cause, nor is it a subject ever discussed again. There’s also a scene involving child abuse quietly swept under the rug, signaling perhaps Tommy was too afraid to go there. Such choppy dramatizations undermine Franklin’s hardships and career. The singer’s spat of alcoholism feels like a flimsy subplot, as does her relations with manager, Ken Cunningham (Albert Jones) who was responsible for getting her healthy. Nothing is said or mentioned about Aretha’s second husband, Glynn Turman.
It’s a tall order trying to encapsulate everything Franklin stood and fought for and there’s always going to be omissions and dramatizations in films on this scale, but the historical insight doesn't go that far beyond a quick Wikipedia glance. “Respect” isn’t an awful movie and audiences will respond to Hudson and Michiganders will feel the sense of pride Franklin brought to the community, except the Queen of Soul deserves more than a standard biopic which barely scratches the surface of who she was and the legacy she left behind.
RESPECT opens in theaters Friday, August 13th