Directed by: Liesl Tommy
Premise: A biopic of soul singer Aretha Franklin. Growing up in her father’s church, Franklin (Jennifer Hudson) rises to fame and fortune in the music industry but she struggles with alcoholism and an abusive marriage.
What Works: The best aspect of Respect is the musical performances. That’s partly due to the casting of Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin. Hudson is a terrific performer whose talents are well suited to the music of Aretha Franklin. She conveys the power but also the soulfulness of Franklin’s stage presence. Many of the best scenes of Respect are the musical numbers including the stage performances but also, and maybe especially, the studio scenes. The filmmakers dramatize Franklin and other musicians and producers working on some of her signature songs. These scenes give a sense of Franklin’s musical talent and they capture the excitement of artistic discovery.
What Doesn’t: Respect is undone by a disjointed and pedestrian script. Any story, but especially a biography, has to be unified around an idea or a set of related concepts. The narrative of Respect is all over the place. The story plays as a hodgepodge of events from Aretha Franklin’s life and it bounces between different ideas without developing them. The film offers no insight into Franklin’s life or perspective on her accomplishments. One of the various strands in Respect is Franklin’s legacy as a civil rights icon. Franklin did indeed support the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s and she had a relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. The filmmakers don’t know what to do with that except to put Franklin and King together talking about doing something. Later on, King presents her with an award for her service. But Respect never substantiates or dramatizes Franklin’s role in the movement in a meaningful way. It’s just an aside. The filmmakers also botch the significance of religion and the black church in Franklin’s life. The picture culminates with the recording of the 1972 Amazing Grace album, including references to the contentious documentary film that wasn’t released until 2019. This ought to be the climax that bookends the film but the significance is lost. Instead, the filmmakers opt to turn Aretha Franklin’s life into a cliché rags-to-riches-to-rehab story. It’s a familiar show business narrative and even though it is rooted in the facts it’s nothing we haven’t seen before and it’s not even done that well.
Bottom Line: Respect is an example of a biopic trying to do everything and ultimately succeeding at nothing. It’s a shame because Jennifer Hudson is so well cast as Aretha Franklin but this film provides no more insight into Franklin’s life and legacy than can be gleaned from reading her Wikipedia page.
Episode: #865 (August 22, 2021)