Aretha Franklin fought demons both internal and external to become one of the most acclaimed voices ever heard. Digital editor Dan Jensen takes a look at the new film exploring her life.
RESPECT is the feature film directorial debut of Liesl Tommy and stars Jennifer Hudson as the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. The film tells her story spanning between the years 1952 and 1972, focusing on what led her to become one of the greatest recording artists of our time.
There’s no question that the absolute highlight of the film is Jennifer Hudson’s portrayal of Franklin. As both an extraordinarily talented singer and actress, Hudson transforms herself into Aretha to the point where she’s no longer present. And there aren’t many other actors who could do such justice to the sound of Aretha’s voice. Even if you’re not a fan of Franklin or soul music in general, it’s impossible not to feel the emotional power behind every note. Hudson’s performance was entirely authentic and will surely see her name in the best actress nominees list at next year’s Oscars.
Equally praiseworthy is the production design of the film. Everything from the hair and make-up to the costumes and sets puts the viewer, believably, in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But it’s not just the set dressings, even the mannerisms of the characters felt perfectly realistic. People spoke and behaved the way they did in the ‘60s which all came down to some great directing.
The central themes in the film explored feminism and equality and they were both handled well. Several moments in the story where Franklin opposed the men in her life who were trying to control her felt uplifting and spirited. It’s an important film for today and shows that we still have a lot of work to do as a society.
Forest Whitaker was excellent as Aretha’s father, Clarence, who was determined to forge her path from childhood. Also delivering a solid performance was Marlon Wayans as Ted White, Aretha’s husband and manager who became the monster her father tried to warn her about.
And it’s impossible not to feel uplifted by moments in the film such as the creation of the titular song, knowing it would go on to be one of the most famous songs ever written. Getting to experience the moment Franklin performs it to a sold-out crowd for the first time was pure cinematic joy.
However, the film is most definitely not without its shortcomings, and it’s unfortunate that there are many. For starters, the beginning of the film is incredibly rushed. There’s no flow to the narrative and it feels like we’re just being presented with a list of things that happened in Aretha’s childhood. It’s understandable that these events will have some effect on her in later years, but we never really get to feel much emotional connection to her. There are some very heavy moments, but none of them wrench the heart the way they should.
There are also a lot of moments that come from out of nowhere. Franklin gave birth to her first son at the age of 12, but this is never actually mentioned or explored. All of a sudden, we’re in a scene where we’re shown that she has children and it feels sudden. The film also dances around other issues in her life such as alcoholism and abuse as a child, but since they’re only hinted at, there’s never any real dramatic conflict in the film. Several other key moments in Aretha’s life are just presented to us with no lead-up, which makes the story feel quite incohesive at times.
It’s a shame that the script falls flat so often, given the importance of the subject. When you take into account other musical biopics such as 2019’s Rocketman, which explored Elton John’s demons far more deeply, Respect just comes across as a lightweight, surface-level account of the traumas that shaped Aretha Franklin into not only one of our greatest singers but a humanitarian and activist, too.
Fans of Aretha Franklin may find more in the film, seeing their idol come to life by Jennifer Hudson’s brilliant performance, but if you’re after something that will move or inspire, this might not quite do it for you.
Respect is now showing in cinemas across the country.
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