Above: Jennifer Hudson stars as soul queen Aretha Franklin in "Respect." (Photo/MGM)
Movie review: "Respect," directed by Liesl Tommy, starring Jennifer Hudson, Marlon Wayans, Forest Whittaker, Audra McDonald. Screening in theaters and streaming on various streaming services.
Most of us have favorite songs, and favorite singers, that evoke memories, and moods, within us – some of which don’t always remain pleasant.
Whenever I hear the Rolling Stones’ song “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” for example, I’m filled with the same energy that I felt when I used to listen to it on my transistor radio some half a century ago on those occasions it was broadcast by the Armed Forces Vietnam Network. Fairly quickly, though, my feelings – not to mention my memories – tend to morph into something quite a bit darker.
By contrast, I don’t have any unpleasant memories regarding the music of the late Aretha Franklin. Her hit songs, from “A Natural Woman” to “Think” to “Respect,” are so melodic – captured both by the late singer’s powerful voice and the talented musicians who backed her up – that they seem timeless. And that’s true despite the fact that all three were initially recorded during those difficult years, 1967 and ’68, that both coincided with my Army service and some of the most difficult events in 20th-century American history.
Clearly, those songs meant something extremely personal to Franklin herself. And as portrayed in director Liesl Tommy’s feature-length Franklin bio-pic starring Jennifer Hudson, one song proved so meaningful to the singer and her life that it became the very name of the film itself: “Respect.”
A first-time feature filmmaker whose previous directorial work includes stints on television series such as “Queen Sugar” and “The Walking Dead,” director Tommy explores Franklin’s life from when she was a 10-year-old girl (circa 1952) singing for adults at her pastor father’s parties to the 1972 gospel concert she gave that led to one of her most successful albums.
(That concert also resulted in a documentary feature film, titled “Amazing Grace,” that for technical reasons wasn’t released until 2018 – a fact that director Tommy’s film doesn’t mention.)
“Respect” doesn’t mention many other parts of Franklin’s life either, beginning with how her mother died (of a heart attack at age 34). Though portrayed by Audra McDonald as a loving supporter of young Franklin, which likely was true, the real-life Barbara Franklin had a stormy relationship with Franklin’s father – the pastor C.L., played by Forest Whitaker.
Franklin’s own first two children, both of whom were born before Franklin herself was in her mid-teens, are barely referred to. They just appear. Much more attention is paid to her first marriage, to Ted White (played by Marlon Wayans), a former Detroit street hustler who married the then-still-a-teenager Franklin and became her erstwhile manager.
What Tommy, working from a screenplay written by Tracy Scott Wilson, does explore is how Franklin’s various life traumas – childhood sexual abuse, the death of her mother, the demands her father made on her, the violence she endured at the hands of White – all drove her artistry (especially as a lyricist on songs such as “Think”). But it caused personal torment, too, which – as the film shows – led to her, on occasion, lashing out cruelly at those closest to her.
Unlike other notable bio-pics, “Respect” the film isn’t afraid to portray its central character in an unflattering light. While in some respects the film resembles a PG-13 representation of reality, it is – in the end – no hagiography.
Where “Respect” does succeed is when it showcases Hudson, a Supporting Actress winner for the 2007 film adaptation “Dreamgirls.” One of the few singers who can match Franklin in vocal power, not to mention stage presence, Hudson comes alive in each of the several musical sequences that Tommy stages.
A good triple feature, in fact, would be to watch “Respect,” then follow with two documentaries. First, “Muscle Shoals,” which was the Alabama studio at which Franklin recorded her first Top 10 song “I Never Loved a Man) The Way I Love You.” And, second, “Amazing Grace.”
Tommy’s film, while hardly perfect, will give you some idea of the emotions weighing on the adult Franklin even as, in both documentaries, she sings with as much forcefulness as anyone ever has.
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