I can’t say I envy the task of trying to bring Aretha Franklin — one of the most enduring artists of the 20th century (and beyond), with a voice so singular that most other singers have been wise enough to spare her the flattery of genuine imitation — to the big screen. And for the Queen of Soul herself to have picked Jennifer Hudson to play the part must, for Hudson, have been a daunting honor, second only to being asked to sing a tribute to Franklin at the icon’s 2018 funeral.
Respect, in which Hudson stars, doesn’t — can’t — entirely do justice to such a vast talent, not least because Franklin’s life had an equally vast historical reach. This is a woman whose life and upbringing didn’t merely touch on the issues of her era; she was born of them, tied to them. Her father, C. L. Franklin, was a renowned pastor and civil rights leader whose home saw guests as estimable as the major Black recording artists of the moment, like Dinah Washington and Sam Cooke (or “Aunt” Dinah and “Uncle” Sam, as a young Aretha calls them in the movie), and whose civil rights activism would encourage a friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. himself, with whom Aretha — armed with that legendary voice — toured and fundraised on behalf of the movement.
Add to that the other particulars — the death of Franklin’s mother when she was 10; childhood sexual abuse that would, as some of the movie’s clumsier but well-meant moments imply, haunt her for the rest of her life; battles with alcoholism, domestic abuse, and the less-tragic (but no less stultifying) rule of her father — and what you have is, well, the stuff from which biopics are made. What other films of this kind don’t have, not even when they’re about legends as incomparable as the incomparable Ray Charles, is music that rips through the spirit quite as thoroughly as Aretha’s. It doesn’t necessarily go without saying that many of the best scenes in Respect are those focused on the Queen’s music; the movie could easily have botched the job, in that regard. But director Liesl Tommy and writer Tracey Scott Wilson have — with the further input of Hudson, who as executive producer had the authority to make sure the “right songs” were in the film and that they were largely performed in full — given us a generous sampling of Franklin’s music, less in terms of the number of songs than in terms of the productions attentive efforts to capture their power.
Though the movie’s already been accused of being a cookie-cutter biopic, the power of those songs is hardly mitigated by the film’s fairly straightforward approach. Respect chronicles Franklin’s life and career from her Detroit childhood, in which the young prodigy was dragged out of bed on Saturday nights to sing for her father’s famous guests, to her recording of the timeless 1972 gospel album Amazing Grace: Franklin’s career-bestselling work and, as the movie frames it, a return to the singer’s church roots that, after a low period in her life, nearly saved her. Musically, this means that the movie covers Franklin’s middling Columbia Records years and her megastar Atlantic years under Jerry Wexler, with a due nod to her first contract at Detroit’s J.V.B. Records. Personally, it means we get a story that is by and large anchored in Franklin’s struggles against the control of the men in her life, namely her first two managers: her father, played by Forest Whitaker, and her first husband, Ted White (Marlon Wayans).
Under the thumb of her father, Franklin (who’s played, as a child, by Skye Dakota Turner) grows into a woman whose meek politeness is hard to square with the powerhouse we know the artist to be — which, it seems, is the point. After the death of her mother (played, too briefly, by Audra McDonald) and a pair of barely-teen pregnancies that the Queen herself was not eager to discuss publicly (but which the film pointedly traces back to that childhood abuse), young Aretha practically goes silent. It’s a move that allows the film to begin tracing the arc of the demons that would later overcome her, from which she would, with Amazing Grace, save herself. But it also gives the fact and power of Franklin’s voice a peculiar dramatic charge that races through the length of the film. Before her death, Franklin’s mother reminds her that her father does not own her voice; later, as he’s showing her off in the offices of Columbia Records’s John Hammond (Tate Donovan), it would appear that Rev. Franklin hasn’t gotten this memo. It’s the way young Aretha is pulled out of her silence, not entirely of her own will, that’s striking. She doesn’t, in these early moments, sing because she wants to; she sings because she’s told to — and also happens, not only to love it, but to be a genius at it.
Funny thing, though, about that upbringing. More than one person in Respect tells that hoary joke about church folk — you know, that they’re the biggest freaks around — and if the Aretha of this movie doesn’t quite prove the idea true, her choice of a first husband, whom the singer Bettye LaVette once described as a “gentleman pimp,” evinces a parallel swerve toward rebellion — a swerve that doesn’t get her nearly as far from her father as she, and also those of us learning this story from the movie, are initially led to think. The swirling camera that captures the couple’s erotically satisfying first kisses soon, as their relationship progresses, starts honing in on the close-ups and case study-views of a romance imperiled by a man’s violence and insecurity. This was violence that spilled out into the lobby of a hotel — and from there to the pages of Time magazine, violence that coincided with the first glimmering heights of Franklin’s career at Atlantic Records. Her storied partnership with Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron), and through him the Muscle Shoals players whose chemistry with Franklin raw talent and style were immeasurable, is all nearly derailed, from the start, by Ted’s quick temper. As she gets bigger, so does his ego, his need to be in charge.
But she does, indeed, get bigger, and bolder, and the lack of self-assurance she displays early on — the forward, upfront star power that Hudson has to surgically subtract from her own persona, as if with a scalpel, in order to play a Queen who doesn’t yet realize that she is one — eventually morphs, for a time, into powerhouse personality we associate with her hits from the era, the Aretha who spelled out, letter by letter, what she demanded of the rest of us. Then comes the other Aretha — the monster with her demons, her distaste for rivals, her eventual hollowing-out to the point of needing a reckoning. But this last phase is curtailed, usefully and not. By the time it arrives, so much has already happened — the movie’s runtime approaches two and half hours — that you can see why the story caps itself off triumphantly, with a hint of the lurking difficulties (and, by many accounts, difficult-ness) that would come in the proceeding half-century.
This stuff all makes for good enough, watchable drama. But Respect is never better — Hudson is never better — than when the movie sets aside the bullet points to delve into the talent, on the one hand, with some meager but fruitful drips of Franklin’s politics, on the other. The scene in Muscle Shoals, with her backing band full of white Alabamans who by all indications, being good Southern boys, have little interest in collaboration at first, is one of the best things in the movie. It starts with a nothing song, by way of Ted, that Franklin and the Muscle Shoals players organically turn into something. The scene is a jam session. Plot-wise, the narrative bullet point at stake — that this collaboration would prove to be, as Aretha herself said in the Muscle Shoals documentary from 2013, a turning point in the legend’s career — is a straightforward high point among biopics’ usual highs.
But the chemistry is something else: Watching these expert talents build their way toward something, working their way through a rendition that’s onto something, but too close to outright gospel at first, then gradually finding a groove and, with it, mutual respect. We get a healthy dose of the sense of Franklin and the gang’s process, of the ways they worked as artists — the kind of insight that films about artists curiously tend to short-change.
That song, by the way, though nearly unrecognizable at first, blooms into what we know to be Franklin’s brilliant, funky stroll of a first hit: “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).” And the scene of its recording is matched, if not outdone, by a similar scene in which Franklin and her sisters, Erma (Saycon Sengbloh) and Carolyn (Hailey Kilgore), the latter of whom wrote the song, work — Muscle Shoals boys in tow — toward a timeless rendition of “Ain’t No Way.” Both of these scenes, which are well-directed, edited to give us the right reaction shots at the right time to infuse them with just the right amount of subtext, are as much about Franklin wresting control over her path through her music as they are about obstructions in the way of that path — namely, Ted. The cut to Ted’s face when Aretha belts out “Stop trying to be someone you’re not,” nearly ascending in her seat as she grows with the song, says more than a dramatization of that idea could say, by a long shot. It’s the fact that she feels the line so hard that everyone, including Ted, cannot help but notice.
Of course, any scene in which Franklin sings further doubles as a chance for the Oscar-winning Hudson to prove herself worthy of the role. Dramatically, the movie doesn’t always know what to do with her, even as the arc it traces for Franklin as a character is very clear. But in scenes like these (another standout: Aretha and her sisters jamming their way, at 3 a.m., toward that stunning rendition of Otis Redding’s — but, really, Aretha’s — “Respect”), Hudson, who sang live on set and is not lip-syncing to a prerecorded track, does her best acting. This isn’t new news; Hudson has often proven herself more a natural actor while performing a song than in the more turgid dramatic scenes she’s sometimes had to muscle her way through. This, too, is a benefit of how generous Respect is with Franklin’s music, even as it doesn’t offer a deep dive into her catalogue, and even as the songs that do appear here feel overly tied to the arc of the plot. It isn’t that she sounds like Aretha when she sings, or that she’s even trying to pull off a plain imitation. It’s that, while finding ways to approach Aretha’s sound while tamping down some of her own, different style, she digs to the root of the songs, their feelings, in ways that tell us what the movie — what the songs — are all really about.
No wonder, then, that the film ends with Amazing Grace, that unmatched set of live January sessions at L.A.’s Missionary Baptist Church, under the choral direction of Reverend James Cleveland (a great Tituss Burgess), whose Southern California Community Choir is no mere crew of backup musicians. “Amazing Grace,” itself, is given all the holy aura the song and Hudson’s performance deserve. The path there is a little long, and not always as exciting or dangerously complex as the film’s subject. And some of the hints dropped along the way, about Franklin’s political life — her admiration for Angela Davis, for example, and the ideological rift at stake in disagreeing with her nonviolence and MLK-worshipping father — entice us with avenues of inquiry into the Queen that are well worth exploring, moreso than some of what’s here. But the movie, which has been released a few days short of the second anniversary of Franklin’s death, is a solid vessel for Franklin’s music, why it still moves us, why — even hearing renditions in the movie — her accomplishments as an artist remain jaw-dropping. As for Franklin herself, the best we can say is that she’s a little fuller, a little less mysterious, than she was at the start of the movie. Her music blows the movie out of the water — and the movie, at its best, is wise to let itself get blown away.