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Aretha Franklin biopic is conventional – except when Jennifer Hudson opens her mouth to sing

Brenda Nicole Moorer, Hailey Kilgore, Saycon Sengbloh and Jennifer Hudson in “Respect.”  (Quantrell D. Colbert/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Brenda Nicole Moorer, Hailey Kilgore, Saycon Sengbloh and Jennifer Hudson in “Respect.” (Quantrell D. Colbert/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
By Ann Hornaday Washington Post

One of the finest sequences in “Respect,” a biopic about Aretha Franklin starring Jennifer Hudson, is when the singer and producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron) are in the legendary Fame recording studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. They’re working on a song titled “I Never Loved a Man,” with Franklin noodling different riffs on the piano as the house band tentatively joins in.

“Let’s find another pocket,” Wex says at one point. She does, and the result makes musical history. As a movie, “Respect” resides in a clearly delineated pocket: This is cinematic portraiture at its most conventional, schematic, occasionally starchy and often maddeningly rote.

The movie begins in 1952, when as a 10-year-old prodigy, Franklin is routinely roused from sleep to sing for the Saturday night parties thrown by her father, the powerful and prosperous Baptist preacher C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker).

The fact that the revelers in attendance include Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald and “Uncle Duke” (as in Ellington) doesn’t faze young Ree: She belts out “My Baby Likes to Bebop” with the self-possession of a seasoned pro. “She’s 10, but her voice is goin’ on 30, honey,” one guest observes.

The young actress who plays Franklin in these early scenes, Skye Dakota Turner, is blessed with impressive pipes. Soon enough, her character has grown into a teenager and gone on the road with her father touring the South with Martin Luther King Jr.

In a gracefully staged passage, young Franklin begins singing a hymn in a Birmingham church with the camera panning through the sanctuary. By the time it circles back, it lands on Hudson, whose Franklin might be older and in even stronger voice, but is no less shy, wounded and undefended than she was as a girl.

Director Liesl Tommy, working from a script by Tracey Scott Wilson and a story Wilson wrote with Callie Khouri, acknowledges the sources of Franklin’s pain, but she does not dwell on them: her absent and adored mother (Audra McDonald) dies suddenly just before the girl’s 11th birthday; she is subject to sexual abuse suggested simply by a closed door and her confused, frightened face. She gives birth to two sons by age 16, but we’re never shown the circumstances of those pregnancies.

In many ways, “Respect” is just as taciturn as its subject: an artistic genius who throughout the film remains a deeply enigmatic, largely unreachable figure. The film’s most explosive scenes are those in which the controlling men in her life – C.L., her manager and first husband Ted White (Marlon Wayans), Fame studio chief Rick Hall (Myk Watford), Wexler and Columbia Records producer John Hammond (Tate Donovan) – argue and even come to physical blows over her while Franklin remains still and obedient, her eyes downcast, her lips steadfastly sealed.

The only time she’s able to shut up the men around her is when she sings, her phenomenal voice and impeccable phrasing and judgment reducing them to dumbfounded awe. Hudson imbues Franklin with enormous sympathy during the narrative chapters of “Respect,” but she isn’t given much to play as such an inward, self-contained and in some ways shutdown character.

But in the musical interludes, she comes gloriously into her own in a performance for the ages. Franklin reportedly handpicked Hudson to play her, and no wonder: Hudson’s turn in “Respect” is the kind of creative – even spiritual – mind-meld that sends a chill down the spine and a catch to the throat.

So, while viewers watch the inevitable rise-rock bottom-redemption arc on screen – all set against an attractive period backdrop and embodied by an able cast of supporting actors – they may find themselves craving the next of “Respect’s” meticulously staged musical numbers, which include snippets of the soignee jazz standards Hammond mistakenly tried to force her into at Columbia, and then those miraculous hits she mined with Wexler in Muscle Shoals, the gospel-tinged R&B songs that invented a genre and made Franklin the Queen of Soul.

Maron injects welcome wit into an otherwise sober-minded film with Wexler’s ham-and-egging routines; once Franklin begins to vibe with keyboard player Spooner Oldham, David Simpson, the ensuing chemistry is nothing less than spellbinding.

“Respect” revisits the expected triumphs, including early gigs in Amsterdam and Paris that became the stuff of myth; Tommy re-creates these moments with exquisite detail, right down to the flowers piling up at Franklin’s feet while she sings “Chain of Fools” at the Concertgebouw.

Back in the United States, King is assassinated and she sings “Precious Lord” at his funeral, another milestone performance that Hudson channels with pained, eerily note-perfect precision.

Structurally, “Respect” is too run-of-the-mill to qualify as a great film. But as a platform for Hudson’s prodigious gifts – and as a vehicle through which to experience Franklin’s again – it not only gets the job done, but it gains in potency and feeling.

The final section, centered on the 1972 recording of “Amazing Grace” and including emotionally shattering footage in the credits, achieves a near-perfect balance of regret and uplift.

“Respect” is nominally a movie about a woman finding her voice, but it’s not clear by the end of the film if she ever really did. There’s no doubt, however, that she found her sound, and in so doing enabled her listeners to feel like they had touched transcendence.

There are electrifying moments when Hudson and “Respect” get the audience back to that rarefied place. And when they do, they’re right in the pocket.

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