REVIEW: Jennifer Hudson Embodies the Soulful and Legendary Aretha Franklin in New Biopic Film ‘Respect’
Directed by Liesl Tommy, Respect doesn’t disappoint with the long-awaited biopic by MGM, chronicling the late musical legend Aretha Franklin. The film stars some heavy-hitting actors, including Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, and Audra McDonald. The film also includes Marc Maron, Tituss Burgess, Kimberly Scott, Saycon Sengbloh, Hailey Kilgore, Heather Headley, Skye Dakota Turner, Tate Donovan, and Mary J. Blige.
Franklin personally chose Hudson, rightfully so, to play her before she passed away years back. Jennifer has proven time and time again that she is the only living singer that had the vocal range and acting skills to embody the beloved legend.
The film opens in 1952 Detroit when we see a young Franklin played by Skye Dakota Turner, who shows us that she is an absolute star herself. She gives a chilling and stellar performance filled with emotion, illustrating how Franklin grew up with her sisters under the controlling eye of her father, minister, and activist, C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker). Her beloved mother, Barbara Franklin (Audra McDonald), was, for the most part, divorced and not in her life outside of sporadic visits where we see her at the piano singing with Aretha.
C.L. wakes Aretha up out of her sleep as a child to sing for his late night party guests. We see the likes of Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige), Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald. Appropriately called “Uncle Duke” and “Aunt Ella” by Aretha as she walks into the room preparing to belt out songs effortlessly beside the piano, mesmerizing the room full of legends.
Respect carefully navigates the trauma and sexual abuse that young Franklin was subjected to, which resulted in her giving birth to two sons by the age of 16, sans any graphic scenes or further explanation on who abused her.
The direction is respectful and subtle, but the film brings you to chills at how such a young child could have endured so much pain silently. Despite these scenes having no graphic element, they were still painful to watch as you saw Turner manifest Aretha’s suffering in silence and that trauma peaking at the loss of her mother before her 11th birthday.
Hudson epitomizes the legendary Aretha Franklin in voice and mannerism; she absolutely brought the complete spirit of Franklin to the big screen. Hudson is giving an Oscar-worthy performance if you are paying close attention. Not a stranger to her own real-life tragic events in losing her mother, you can see and hear the emotion that Hudson unravels into the complexities of Franklin as she tries to cope with her past.
Forest Whitaker was brilliant and daunting as the late singer’s father and showed the complexities of emotions coming from a real-life character that was applauded as a minister and activist who supported the civil rights movement, that unfortunately had his own life long dark demons of abuse.
Respect was gut-wrenching at times, but the film respectfully chronicled some of the very difficult times Franklin suffered as a child that made her who she was in spirit. Respect perfectly captures the life of a legend touching on the full spectrum of Franklin’s journey, including her struggles, breakthroughs, dedication to humanity, and accomplishments.
Some monumental scenes as Franklin finds her voice in the film include her original meeting with Capitol Records. Her father is running the meeting only to awkwardly have her stand up and turn around as he’s discussing the deal. Franklin is mostly silent through the whole process. Soon after, we see her putting out a sea of conservative and safe jazz albums that showcase her amazing voice but do not become hits.
It’s not until she meets and marries Ted White, of whom her father vehemently objected, that Franklin releases her father as manager and lands a deal at Atlantic Records in 1967. Marlon Wayans broke any stereotype for those thinking he was just a comedic actor. Instead, we see a complete metamorphosis into Ted White, another complex and deeply troubling character.
Legendary producer Jerry Wexler took Franklin down to FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to create her original sound with a piano, an idea, and a room full of overbearing men.
The band members are literally dropping like flies during the session. White is accusing each one left and right of flirting with Franklin, which resulted in some musicians getting fired. The chaos continues with a physical altercation at a hotel between White and musician and producer Rick Hall. Despite the drama, Franklin recorded “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You),” which made it to No 9 in the Billboard 100 and solidified her as an icon and perfected her original sound.
Another incredible moment in the film is the reenactment of Franklin’s real-life performance at Amsterdam’s historic Concertgebouw. Franklin had dropped her album Lady Soul on Atlantic Records and was on her first-ever European tour. She performed with her backup singers where she captivated the audience with her string of top ten hits. They in turn pelted Franklin with a sea of flowers while singing, which became an iconic performance for her which in real-life was caught on camera.
This became the breaking point in the film for Franklin with her husband White and his overbearingness as we see him coming out on stage shouting at the crowd, not understanding this was done in adoration. A reporter asked him after the show if it’s “…true he beats his wife.” Earlier in the film White was seen by fans beating Aretha in an elevator which wasn’t the first or last time he abused her.
Respect moves through the sea of Franklin’s accomplishments, highs, lows, and recovery. After her past and addictions catch up with her, she turns to her church to heal herself. Franklin insisted on making a gospel album, and Wexler insisted a documentary go along with it to show Aretha’s roots and appeal to her crossover audience. The album “Amazing Grace” became one of Aretha’s most popular albums.
The costumes in Respect were impeccable, and Clint Ramos perfected Franklin’s off-stage wardrobe. It was wonderful to see those historical flashbacks in fashion related to the singer. Ramos showcased what may have been Franklin’s personal choices based on what she was going through emotionally.
While the film follows the typical biopic arc with the rise and fall only to rise again formula, the film still does some very beautiful things. It was moving, soulful, and you’ll find it simply incredible as long as you take your time and move with the film through some very well directed personal and historical moments.
From the cinematography, the original music to the tribute at the very end, the cast and filmmakers have told a complete story of the life of one of our most beloved legends. Watch Respect in theaters on August 13.