When Aretha Franklin sang, the walls trembled. Her voice demolished the rules of popular music, forcing new ones to be written in their place. Ms. Franklin’s influence is monolithic, and has no need for a shimmering Hollywood biography to amplify it any further. And, much like Ray Charles or Muhammad Ali, no two-hour movie could ever properly bottle up her complexities, nor generate a coherent thesis on her enduring legacy. That’s why most modern biopics are too sanitized, too shortsighted, or both.
Even though it’s fitfully guilty on both of those charges, Respect still finds a way to work by virtue of sheer entertainment value. Yes, it’s flawed and formulaic. Yes, the story feels incomplete, even at 145 minutes. But, at the same time, it’s almost impossible to avoid the emotional pull of so much good music, or get lost within the splendor of Jennifer Hudson’s jaw-dropping performance. It may not be perfect, but Respect will sock it to you, just the same.
The story begins in 1952, as young Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner) comes of age in Detroit, Michigan. Her father, C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), is a fiery Baptist preacher who surrounds himself with the glitterati of gospel and soul music, along with the pillars of the burgeoning civil rights movement. (Aretha refers to Dr. King as “Uncle Martin.”) She enjoys a happy relationship with her mother (Audra McDonald), a talented singer who only serves as an intermittent presence in the lives of her children. Aretha’s world implodes when Barbara Franklin suddenly dies, and the little girl refuses to smile or speak for weeks. When she finally emerges from this darkness, Aretha forms a lifelong symbiosis with music: She draws strength and spiritual catharsis from its energy, while it demands a full commitment of soul, courage, and unhinged creativity. Both were permanently altered by this exchange.
Aretha’s personal relationships aren’t quite so blessed by give and take. Now a teenager, Aretha (Jennifer Hudson) forges a tumultuous relationship with Ted White (Marlon Wayans), a two-bit producer who’s short on temper and long on ego. His emotional and physical abuse threatens to derail Aretha’s career before it can even get going. Still, she somehow perseveres, linking up with mega-producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron). He puts Aretha with Muscle Shoals, the legendary Alabama-based session players who supply the instrumental backdrop for many of her biggest hits.
It’s here that Respect adheres to the traditional biopic formula, and spends the second half of its second act neck-deep in Aretha’s spiritual demons. The strain of being everything to everyone she loves causes her to drink too much and work too hard. Aretha spends the remainder of the film mending her personal and professional life, all while reconciling her status as the Voice of a Generation.
Even though it hits so many familiar tropes, most of Respect is pretty good. As with musical biographies like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, the filmmakers stock the jukebox with all of the singer’s biggest and brightest tracks, often making us a spectator at their creation. These scenes brim with electricity, thanks to the infectious charm of Aretha’s music. When Hudson sings, the magic can’t help but burst from the speakers.
On the subject of Hudson, nothing about this film would work without her commanding performance. She doesn’t look much like Aretha, nor sound like her, but Hudson does fully inhabit her own version. It’s a wise move: Aretha had an unknowable brilliance that would be impossible to replicate, but Hudson gives us a very good cover of it. She’ll likely secure an Oscar nomination for her work here.
The cast around is uniformly excellent, as well. Wayans infuses Ted White with a real Ike Turner vibe: He’s an ambitious bully who uses belligerence to paper over his shortcomings, and Wayans skillfully plays Ted as a volatile mix of pitiful and monstrous. Whitaker also finds depth within C.L. Franklin, who–like Aretha–gets caught between the passionate, charismatic person he’s expected to be, and the ambitious, enigmatic soul he really is. As Jerry Wexler, Maron lights up a few scenes as the man who puts Aretha with the right musicians at just the right time. Finally, Tituss Burgess puts a soft touch to James Cleveland, the famed pianist who ultimately becomes her spiritual conscience.
In short, Respect is a good-looking, well-made film. Jennifer Hudson delivers a gripping performance, and she alone makes this movie worth the streaming. Aretha’s voice reached the heavens and expanded what was possible for so many people. Her talent was otherworldly, but Respect will require you to keep your expectations firmly on Earth. If you can do that, this film should prove to be supremely enjoyable.
145 min. PG-13.