It’s real shame that more people didn’t see this loving tribute to Aretha Franklin on the big screen, but home streaming may yet prove a happy hunting ground. After the death of Stephen Sondheim last year, few would have sought out Elizabeth Taylor’s famously off-key version of Send in The Clowns as featured in 1977’s A Little Night Music. That’s because back in the day, few film stars could sing well enough to do justice to great songs; Jennifer Hudson has no such issues, and there’s simply no faulting Respect, her unique rendition of the Queen of Soul.
Respect is part of an on-going willingness to exhume beloved stars for biopics; from Walk The Line and Ray to Bohemian Rhapsody; even when they don’t work as drama, the juke-box musical feel generally gets these projects over the line. In order to use the music of the late star, they generally need the permission of the estate, and that means airbrushed portraits. Respect is made of sterner stuff, however, and an all-female team, director Liesl Tommy, plus writers Callie Khouri and Tracy Scott Wilson, refuse to shy away from making this version of Aretha more complex than most biopics.
With the death of her mother, abusive males circling, and teenage pregnancy to navigate, this Franklin has no shortage of crosses to bear. She certainly wouldn’t have seen these genuine trials as cliches, and Respect cuts far deeper that the usual rags to riches story. Indeed, with Franklin’s father (Forrest Whitaker) a close associate of Martin Luther King, this isn’t the usual story of a ingénue exploding from obscurity either, but that of an artist finding their way forward. Franklin isn’t portrayed as a saint, but as an enormously talented woman who fought for her own independence, notably from manager Ted White (a good turn from Marlon Wayans).
While this is a warts and all portrayal, unafraid to capture Franklin berating staff or stubborn to take advice, it’s also a triumphant story of girl power; what seals the deal here is the care taken not just with the period detail but with the music, and a real highlight is the depiction of how Franklin and her team retooled Otis Reading’s Respect into the staple we know today. Moments like this give Hudson the chance to show her acting skills and voice; it’s the kind of performance that awards are made for, with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) the latest to get the memo.
The supporting cast are on point as well, with Marc Maron doing some heavy lifting as producer Jerry Wexler, and Mary J Blige memorable as a dismissive Dinah Washington. Respect ends long before Franklin’s career, with 1972’s Amazing Grace album, and we’re spared collaborations with George Michael or The Blues Brothers. This is a considerable film at 145 mins, but really justifies the length with detail and incident, and a heart in the right place; critics undervalued it but it looks like the public won’t make the same mistake. Aretha was one of the musical greats of the 20th century, and Respect succeeds where many biopics have failed in capturing the human story behind the musical legend, with Hudson the happy centre of a lavish, sincere production.
Thanks to METRO GOLDWYN MAYER and UNIVERSAL STUDIOS for access to this film.