Aretha Franklin chose Jennifer Hudson to play her in a dramatic feature based on her life, and Hudson repays that act of faith by honoring the late singer’s towering legacy in Respect. A powerful account of self-actualization spanning 20 formative years, Liesl Tommy’s biopic is also an intimate gift of love, rich in complexity, spirituality, Black pride and feminist grit rooted not in didactic speeches but in authentic experience. The ageless music, of course, is the galvanizing force, but it’s the personal struggle behind it that makes the story so affecting.
A respected South African-American theater and TV director making a confident move into features, Tommy doesn’t escape the conventions of the bio-drama but she injects every scene with genuine feeling that elevates the material — as much as Hudson’s mighty pipes opened up in song. This is easily the star’s most persuasively committed screen performance since Dreamgirls, alive not just in the musical interludes but also in the frequently combative interactions with the people closest to Aretha. The entertaining MGM/UA release’s beating heart combined with Franklin’s multigenerational fan base should guarantee a receptive audience following its world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival.
The reign continues.
More tightly focused in its time frame than Nat Geo’s recent anthology season Genius: Aretha, which starred Cynthia Erivo, Respect begins with her preteen years in 1952 Detroit and wraps with her live church recording of the gospel album, Amazing Grace, two decades later. The screenplay by playwright Tracey Scott Wilson charts the initially faltering rise to fame, as expected, but it gives equal attention to Blackness, family and the church, three foundational building blocks very much instrumental in shaping Franklin as an artist.
What distinguishes the story from most musical biopics is the fact that Aretha (played as a child by Skye Dakota Turner) was directly exposed from a young age to influential artists counted as family friends. Among them were Sam Cooke, Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson and Dinah Washington, the latter played with fiery command by Mary J. Blige in a pivotal scene of brutally straight-talking mentorship. A child prodigy, Aretha was regularly yanked out of bed by her Baptist minister father, Rev. C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), to sing at late-night parties full of sophisticated guests. “She’s 10, but her voice is goin’ on 30, honey,” says one of them.
While her parents separated early in her life due to C.L.’s philandering and volatile temper, her mother Barbara (Audra McDonald), who was also an accomplished singer, was a major inspiration. In a gorgeous scene during a weekend visit, McDonald wraps her heavenly voice around “I’ll Be Seeing You” while mother and daughter catch up at the piano. But the shock of Barbara’s sudden death threatens to silence Aretha. The closeness with her sisters, Carolyn (Hailey Kilgore) and Erma (Saycon Sengbloh), is depicted as another source of anchoring female solidarity, a buffer against C.L.’s expectation of patriarchal appeasement.
By the time the central role transitions mid-song from Turner to Hudson, Aretha is already a mass of contradictions. Having performed as a soloist both at her father’s church and on the Baptist touring circuit, she has the poise and command to sing in front of huge audiences. And her father’s friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. (Gilbert Glenn Brown), a man she knows as “Uncle Martin,” feeds her desire for social justice. But C.L. is still hyper-controlling — of her participation in civil rights protests, her professional choices, even her love life. The latter element is complicated by her refusal to name the father of her two children, the first born when she was not yet 13, a trauma that haunts her throughout.
Her years recording at Columbia in the early ‘60s yield a string of albums but no hits as she attempts to make her mark as a jazz artist. When she finally breaks away from her father’s iron grip, it’s with another domineering man, Ted White (Marlon Wayans), a charmer who becomes her husband and manager. The first to trust in Aretha’s unerring instincts about her sound is producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron, terrific); once he moves her to Atlantic Records and puts her in an Alabama studio with the Muscle Shoals band, the hits start coming.
A scene in which Aretha takes charge during the recording of “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and reshapes an ordinary song into a raw emotional declaration demonstrates her brilliant intuition as a self-taught musician. Similarly thrilling is a late-night jam at the piano with her sisters singing backup, during which she takes the Otis Redding song that gives the film its title and makes it into the supercharged hit that would come to define her.
These musical interludes and their insights into the process by which a great song finds its signature form are enormously uplifting. Hudson’s vocals are electrifying, sticking to the template yet not to the point of constricting imitation. Another highlight is “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman,” performed on stage in Detroit after Dr. King presents Aretha with an honor for her fundraising contribution to the civil rights movement. Likewise, her soul-searing delivery of King’s favorite hymn, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” at his funeral.
Where the film starts to bog down just a tad, making its 2 hour-plus running time felt, is in the unraveling of Aretha’s marriage as Ted becomes more abusive, partly in response to his increasingly marginal role in her career. It’s perhaps a touch on the nose to have Aretha’s emancipation epiphany come with the “Freedom” refrain as she’s singing “Think” at the Olympia in Paris. But the song still rules.
The storytelling loses some fluidity in the later sections after Aretha begins a relationship with tour manager Ken Cunningham (Albert Jones). Despite the stability of finally being with an emotionally supportive man, her excessive drinking starts causing friction with her family, including a falling out with her sisters. But this comes almost out of nowhere, like an afterthought from filmmakers suddenly remembering to reveal some character flaws for balance.
Wilson’s script spends too little time on the connective thread, relying on vague nods to Aretha’s demons — both personal and political, following the MLK assassination and the FBI’s 1970 arrest of Angela Davis. There’s a lurching, episodic quality to developments such as Aretha skipping concert dates and showing up drunk on stage, with disastrous results in a Georgia show.
It’s a credit both to the filmmakers and to Hudson, however, that the movie withstands those wobbly passages and never loses our investment in the woman it so clearly reveres — a character drawn as both larger-than-life and fragile. Ending with the recording of Amazing Grace at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles was a smart choice, serving to tie up multiple narrative threads, as well as tethering the story to music that’s inseparable from Black experience in America.
The recording project reconnects Aretha to an important figure from her childhood, James Cleveland (Tituss Burgess), the former music director of her father’s church; it allows her to assert herself with the contentious but affable Wexler for creative control; and it brings her back to the purifying music she grew up on, healing family rifts in the process. Anyone not moved by the pain and passion Hudson channels into the album’s title song must be made of stone. It rumbles forth from her like quiet thunder.
Alongside her star turn, Whitaker does standout work as the charismatic preacher, a proud, difficult man capable of hardness as much as love, while Wayans effectively plays Ted as smooth and seductive but ultimately weak. Tommy’s ability with actors is evident in the warmth and vitality she coaxes out of even the smallest of the female roles, including Kilgore and Sengbloh as Aretha’s sisters, McDonald as her beloved mother, Kimberly Scott as her salt-of-the-earth grandmother and Heather Headley as C.L.’s long-time lover, singer Clara Ward. Turner, fresh off her Broadway debut playing another music legend as a child in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, brings touching wide-eyed innocence and a big, inversely proportionate voice to the young Aretha.
The movie has an attractive sheen thanks to Kramer Morganthau’s crisp cinematography and the luxuriant detail and bold colors of Ina Mayhew’s midcentury production design. But the most eye-popping element is Clint Ramos’ costumes, notably a series of fabulous gowns and statement jewelry showing Black women’s styles of the era at their most glamorous. The music production by Stephen Bray and Jason Michael Webb also is first-rate. The end credits reel off a litany of awards and honors received by Franklin over footage and photographs of her across the decades, which will stir the heart of anyone who ever treasured her music. Respect gives the Queen of Soul the regal treatment she deserves.