Review by Maribeth Thueson, NRFTW Contributor
Aretha Franklin was a music icon whose life had amazing highs and lows, which ought to have made a really interesting and moving film. Unfortunately, Respect respects its subject too much, as if looking hard at the ugly stuff would tarnish the image of its subject. Instead, the film only glances briefly at those episodes and is reduced to becoming a standard biopic. Sure, there was the death of Franklin’s mother (Audra McDonald, who we don’t see enough of – but can you ever?) when she was 10 years old, two teenage pregnancies (the movie doesn’t even mention the second one), her preacher father’s (Forest Whitaker) exploitation of her singing talent, her abusive first husband Ted White (Marlon Wayans), and her alcoholism, but there’s no need to explore how all of that affected her and how she coped with such horrors. No, just gloss over that and concentrate on the music.
The music can almost make you forget the film’s shortcomings. Franklin picked Jennifer Hudson to portray her, and Hudson certainly has the pipes to do justice to the hits – Respect, I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You), Chain of Fools, Think, (You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman – which are given plenty of screen time and the full production number treatment, with costumes, choreography, and quick edits. You can’t help but at least tap your toes. More likely, you’ll be dancing in your seat.
The film does take off a bit when Franklin meets producer Jerry Wexler (played superbly by Mark Maron), who sends her to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to work with the musicians at FAME Studios in hopes of making a breakthrough hit, which had thus far eluded her. The scene has Franklin and the musicians trying different riffs and rhythms, finding what works and discarding what doesn’t, making the arrangement on the fly. In the rest of the film, Franklin often submits to the men in her life, who mistreat and misunderstand her, but in the studio, she is the undisputed boss. If she approves, it stays in. If not, it’s out. She’s not shy about demanding what she wants in her career from Wexler, either. But it takes longer for her to demand that respect from her husband and father, who both attempt to ride to fame in her reflected glory. There’s also a juicy cameo by Mary J. Blige as Dinah Washington, although the scene borrows from an incident between Washington and Etta James that didn’t actually happen with Franklin.
You might be wondering how this version of Franklin’s life compares with the version on National Geographic Channel’s Genius series, Aretha, which starred Cynthia Erivo as Franklin and Courtney B. Vance as her father. Erivo looks more like Franklin and also does her own singing. With eight episodes, the series was able to delve more deeply into Franklin’s family relationships, especially with her sisters, who often acted as her back-up singers, but were often jealous of her success, and with her controlling father, who was a serial philanderer and alcoholic who impregnated a 12-year-old girl. Despite all his sins, Franklin never wrote him off entirely, taking care of him after he was shot by an intruder in his home.
The series also spent more time on Franklin’s activism in support of civil rights. But it petered when it came to the last phase of her career, showing only the highlights – the 80s hits Freeway of Love and Sisters are Doin’ It for Themselves, performing Nessun Dorma at the 1998 Grammy Awards, singing at Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 – and not anything about what her actual life was like. What Franklin was like as a person remains opaque, and Arivo’s performance doesn’t fill in the gaps.
Hudson,on the other hand, finds some moments when she can add some nuance to the character. For instance, there’s a scene when White and Wexler are arguing over the next step in her career. Wexler is obviously right, but Franklin sides with White, against her best interests. The script never explains why, but the look on Hudson’s face says it might be to preserve marital harmony.
Respect ends with Franklin’s live recording of a gospel album and accompanying documentary in 1972, the scene and her heart-felt performance of Amazing Grace implying a redemption from the hardships she had experienced. This follows the standard formula for musician biopics: the experimentation to find a unique sound, the fight for recognition, the success and fame, followed by the inevitable addiction/breakup/accident, culminating in the comeback. And that’s really the problem with both Aretha and Respect – they’re both informative and enjoyable, but follow the boiler-plate biopic formula without adding anything special.
The last scene in Respect is the best, most moving scene of the film: a clip of the real Aretha singing Natural Woman at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015. The audience of Washington movers and shakers is so thrilled they jump to their feet in the middle of the song for a standing ovation. The real Aretha – now, there’s the Queen of Soul.