There was never a figure more polarizing in music history than Aretha Franklin. Rising from deep gospel roots, the legendary singer dubbed “The Queen of Soul” was equal parts sinner and saint. Known for such seismic musical offerings as “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, “Chain of Fools”, and of course “Respect”, the 18-time Grammy Award winner commanded the music world for several decades despite a dark undercurrent that seemed to permeate her life
Compelling and heartbreaking at times, Franklin is the subject of a new biopic opening in theaters this weekend called Respect. Starring the mesmerizing Jennifer Hudson as Franklin, the movie also features commendable performances from Forest Whitaker (Lee Daniels’ The Butler), Audra McDonald (Beauty and the Beast), Marlon Wayans (Little Man), Tituss Burgess (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), and Marc Maron (Maron).
Unlike other biopics that tend to feature their subject from birth to death, Respect opts to focus on a critical 20-year juncture of Franklin’s life, a formative yet traumatic period around age 10 to the global superstar she became in the early 1970s.
Director Liesl Tommy navigates Respect through the turbulent times of Franklin’s life but creates an uneven pace in doing so. Simply put, the musical performance scenes are transcendent while the everything in between seems to plod along at a more pedestrian pace.
THE MOVIE IN A MINUTE
A precocious vocal talent at the tender age of 10, young Aretha Franklin was raised and groomed by her Baptist minister father C.L. Franklin (Whitaker) to be a famous singer. On a regular basis, he would showcase Aretha to entertain his friends, many of them black leaders and celebrities. Controlled and manipulated by his “best intentions”, Aretha rose to prominence in her teen years singing pop tunes and jazz standards that just didn’t match her voice. It was apparent her tremendously powerful vocal range was far better suited singing gospel and soul music. Eventually, she broke away from her father but quickly fell under the spell of Ted White (Wayans), who became her manager and eventual husband. While his brash personality was beneficial in helping Aretha to find her professional footing, it was his hustler instincts that dragged her into some very emotional dark places. Eventually, she rose above the morass of her troubled life and sagging career to re-invent herself, culminating with a legendary 1972 gospel concert held at a Los Angeles church.
THE GOOD AND BAD OF RESPECT
Handpicked by Franklin herself to play this role before her death in 2018, Hudson turns in an award-winning performance, one that rivals or exceeds her Oscar-turn in Dreamgirls. Captivating from the first frame she appears in, Hudson clearly demonstrates why she is one of the top vocalists on the planet today. Viewers will not be able to take their eyes off her as she gracefully and powerfully weaves her way through the Aretha Franklin songbook. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Aretha besides Hudson.
Sadly, the non-musical scenes are solid but not spectacular. McDonald does turn in a notable performance as young Aretha’s well-meaning mother while Mary J. Blige lights up the screen as Dinah Washington, a legendary singer in her own right, who strongly confronts young Aretha about living up to her potential.
Despite such great musical performances throughout, faith based audiences will be disappointed by the open use and abuse of alcohol, profanity, and scenes of infidelity involving Franklin and several of her suitors. It certainly detracts from the tremendous musical performances that proliferate throughout the movie.
IN THE END
Aretha Franklin’s story is not an easy one to tell. For all of her triumphs on some of the world’s largest stages, she often struggled through the subtle nuances of day to day living. Yet, despite all of her flaws, Franklin will be remembered as one of the most iconic, powerful voices of the last 60 years. Despite all the hazy, unfocused moments of her life, it is the jaw-dropping rendition of “Amazing Grace” to close the movie that brings Franklin and the movie squarely into focus.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind but now I see
This is the movie’s biggest takeaway. Whatever Aretha Franklin came up against, God was always there waiting for her.
Watch a featurette for Respect: