This conventional Aretha Franklin biopic is elevated by Jennifer Hudson’s transportive central performance.
Jennifer Hudson rose to fame as a contestant on American Idol before an Oscar-winning turn as Effie White in 2006’s Dreamgirls catapulted her into stardom. She is now a permanent fixture across music, film and television. Talented and likeable enough to make it out of 2019’s Cats relatively unscathed, and directly approved by Aretha Franklin herself, Hudson now portrays the legendary Queen of Soul in Liesl Tommy’s feature directorial debut, Respect.
We meet Franklin in 1952 as a mild-mannered pre-teen, and discover that, from the age of 12, she grew up singing gospel to packed church congregations and was the daughter of prominent Detroit pastor, CL (Forest Whitaker), who took on her management duties. Whitaker is well cast, his trademark soft-spoken gravitas here channelled as quiet domination. Well-versed in the Booker T Washington school of Black respectability politics, CL is keen to market Franklin as a distinctly sanitised act, and he is vocal in his disdain for more risqué singers such as Billie Holiday.
Shopping her to record labels, CL’s voice booms over a muted Franklin as he negotiates her deals and dictates song selections. Growing into an artist with multiple albums, yet no real hits, Franklin marries producer Ted White (Marlon Wayans) who similarly places his own perceived expertise over Franklin’s desire to expand her artistry. Both men seek to shape Franklin through their own ideals, demanding a level of respect and reverence while covering their own moral failings and doling out abuse in return.
It’s no easy feat playing Franklin throughout her development from a meek young woman to a defiant, and at times troubled, superstar, and Hudson’s efforts in this pursuit are clear. She takes great pains to make sure that she doesn’t just match the vocal prowess of the real Aretha that many will expect and have expressly come to see, but she also tries to mirror Franklin’s cadence, and give what feels like a deeply passionate performance.
However, some of these efforts, while admirable, can appear too noticeable and she never quite disappears into the role. She is at her best when recreating Franklin’s memorable vocal performances, Hudson finally becoming one with her subject at the film’s close – the soul stirring 1978 gospel concert that would become 2018’s documentary feature, Amazing Grace.
Respect is a thoroughly decent film. Thankfully much better edited and structured than Lee Daniels’ recent The United States Vs Billie Holiday (a very noticeable jump from Franklin being played as a 10-year-old, then by Hudson a mere seven years later notwithstanding), it’s a steady debut from Tommy that is well-contextualised and thoughtful, using Franklin’s life and the civil rights movement to explore various notions of what respect really means.
While it may not be the barnstorming spectacle one might hope for, Franklin fans and casual viewers alike will leave with a true sense of and belief in Franklin’s talent, tenacity and iconic status, making it a fitting tribute.
Published 7 Sep 2021
A biopic years in the making with Hudson chosen by Aretha herself.
Never quite blows you away but it’s well cast and showcases the vocals we came to hear.
Make sure you check out the amazing Aretha concert film, Amazing Grace.