Jennifer Hudson is Aretha Franklin in By-the-numbers Biopic
DIRECTED BY LIESL TOMMY/2021
National treasure Aretha Franklin, for all her well-deserved acclaim as the undisputed “Queen of Soul”, has had less success on the big screen. Not that making it big in the movies was ever a priority for her, but Franklin’s few notable attempts didn’t set the world on fire.
Her part as Mrs. Murphy in The Blues Brothers was a fun side note, reprised years later for the not-so-fun Blues Brothers 2000. Only a few years ago, the documentary capturing the making of her outstanding 1972 live gospel album Amazing Grace was finally granted a posthumous release. Although major technical problems prevented its initial completion at the time, digital post-production software enabled the film to come together- only to be barred for years by the singer for unknown reasons.
The new long-brewing Franklin bio-pic Respect is unlikely to radically alter this pattern. It’s not that Respectdoesn’t have it where it counts- that, it most certainly does. Every major musician biopic hinges first and foremost on one thing: the central performance. In this sense, Respect comes through in spades, as Jennifer Hudson fully embodies the late singer in body and voice. The end goal for these sorts of endeavors is an Academy Award for the lead, and Hudson’s fully committed embodiment may just take her there. (To mildly reference a song of the same era by The Staple Singers).
Director Liesl Tommy imbues the film with a tremendously effective subtle shift in cinematography throughout, inching from a sharper focus and more pronounced hues of Franklin’s early childhood to a hazy, muted Super-16mm kind of look as her career progresses. This visual shift, though not overt, underscores Franklin’s initial and tragic loss of innocence to her own desperate grasp for identity as her star finally rose following a stalled start. This terrific cinematography helps divert from the pristine and over-arranged nature of the set dressing.
It isn’t until Franklin’s arrival in Muscle Shoals, Alabama for her legendary one-day recording session at the iconic FAME Studios that Respect begins to reflect a believably lived-in reality. (For more on this fateful day in music history, in which Franklin gelled intrinsically with the southern studio’s house musicians, don’t miss the truly great 2013 documentary Muscle Shoals, which features an original interview with Franklin herself). The film’s wardrobe is impeccably era-appropriate but also awfully off-the-rack. Some of this is likely intended to depict the affluence of Franklin’s life, as her father, C.L. Franklin (a solid Forest Whitaker), was a very prominent and outspoken minister in her native Detroit. Yet, artifice intrudes from the fringes all too often. (Just as it does in many a period biopic).
But none of this is the major issue with Respect. The major issue, almost shockingly, is one of tired sameness. One would think, that in this day and age of having so many of these biopics in the rear-view mirror, that the filmmakers would actively work to differentiate their project (beyond the obviousness of the individual in question and their songs). That Respect chose to go this cookie-cutter route, resulting in a film with the same old narrative bones as Coal Miner’s Daughter, Ray, Walk the Line, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Rocketman (to name a few) is particularly egregious.
The fact is that Aretha Franklin had her fair share of unique tragedies and circumstances throughout the covered era of her life (Respect cuts off in 1972, leaving literal decades on the table for a sequel that will never happen). Yet, the story literally skips over several of them, opting to go straight for the familiar. Just because Franklin in real life didn’t like to discuss her early adolescent pregnancies doesn’t mean that her biopic must bypass such a major ordeal. (It should be noted that Franklin was actively involved in the development of this film). As it stands, this particular aspect is only hinted at in the film’s one and only moment of dreamlike narrative experimentation.
At another point, the film essentially stops cold so that Martin Luther King, Jr. can publicly present Franklin with an award for her tireless efforts on behalf of the civil rights movement. Gee, it would’ve been nice to have glimpsed one second of said efforts. Only later does Franklin state during a press conference that “Angela Davis must go free”. And that’s the last we hear about that; now back to the hits. (Respect is long in the tooth due to its decompressed showcasing of so many of Franklin’s immortal singles: “Think”, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, “Chain of Fools”, “I Say a Little Prayer”, and of course the signature title tune. These performances, as box-ticking as they are, are the movie’s strongest moments).
Being that the film culminates with her Amazing Grace concert performance (her “Live Aid” moment here), one may suspect that Respect was forged as, above all, an inspirational experience. There’s nothing at all wrong with such an intention, though not when it’s achieved via the exorcising of true unpleasantries. It’s been said that when telling a story, the best thing one can do is tell the truth. As harsh as the truth in this case may be, its resonance underscores Franklin’s ultimate triumph. Yes, we see the extended intervention of Franklin’s loved ones on behalf of her out-of-control addiction with alcohol, but that’s literally all we see of that Achilles heel. This struggle is practically an on-and-done bit, just another rough patch to be gotten through in the full-steam-ahead to the uplifting ending.
Many will likely come away from Respect perfectly satisfied. Hudson gives it her glorious all as the times and places of the story are evoked recognizably enough. The many supporting players are also well cast, including Audra McDonald as Franklin’s sister Barbara, Marlon Wayans as her abusive husband Ted White, Marc Maron as producer Jerry Wexler, and Tituss Burgess as James Cleveland. It’s too bad that the screenplay by Tracey Scott Wilson resorts to having everyone speak in bullet-points in its effort to hopscotch from one thing to another. Yet, Respect is no disaster… only a disappointment. In perpetual glad handling its audience, the film’s very title becomes counterintuitive if not unfortunately ironic.