“Respect” follows the music biopic playbook, starting with a film title that borrows its name from one of its subject’s well-known songs or lyrics, a la “Walk the Line,” “Get on Up,” “Rocket Man,” Bohemian Rhapsody,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Straight Outta Compton,” and so on. From there, it’s the narrative checkboxes that include a hardscrabble and/or abusive upbringing, burgeoning musical talent, the rise to fame (including a montage of popular songs), the tumultuous marriage, the substance abuse, the estrangement from friends and family, the fall from grace and finally the comeback concert.
That does not mean that Aretha Franklin did not experience all of these triumphs and tribulations. The film opens in 1952 with a 10-year-old Franklin living in Detroit, Michigan, with her sisters and father, C.L. Franklin, played with splendid complexity by Forest Whitaker. Franklin is just beginning to realize her singing skill, prodded by a demanding dad who insists that she perform at parties and the church where C.L. preaches. Beyond the musical performances (more on that later), the film’s highlight is the love/loath relationship between Franklin and her father. He is a misogynistic man, including towards Franklin and her mother, who separated from C.L. and later died young. At the same time, he not only encourages Franklin’s musical growth but also lends her a religious grounding that she lean on and will return to throughout her life.
Franklin was sexually abused and became a teenage mom, an aspect the film barely mentions and utterly declines to explore. Instead, director Liesl Tommy fast-forwards to 1960 and Franklin traveling to New York City to sign her first contract with Columbia Records. Franklin struggles to find her voice — and success — until joining producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron) and Atlantic Records, and taking a trip down Muscle Shoals, Alabama. There, Franklin records “(I Never Loved A Man) The Way That I Love You,” her first top-10 hit. The session is cut short, however, by Franklin’s abusive husband, Ted White (Marlon Wayans), who battles with his wife and anyone in her orbit.
“Respect” shines in its performances, starting with the sensational Hudson, who has both the acting and vocal chops for this formidable role. Tommy spends an excessive amount of screen time on Franklin’s seminal songs, including the title track, “Chain of Fools,” “Think,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and more. Thankfully, Hudson carries these scenes with her dynamic voice and stage presence, and later lends emotional depth to Franklin’s battle with alcoholism, her struggles with success, and her redemptive 1972 gospel album and concert in Los Angeles.
The supporting cast are universally superb, particularly Whitaker, Wayans, Tituss Burgess as Rev. James Cleveland, and Mary J. Blige in a brief but memorable turn as singer Dinah Washington. The net effect is a film that resurrects an interest and appreciation for the Queen of Soul.
Otherwise, however, “Respect” is as banal as its title. While it might replicate certain aspects and events in Franklin’s life, the filmmaking choices of how to craft and present its story arc are fairly familiar and forgettable. Aretha Franklin is a singular musical talent worthy of her own movie. But “Respect” proves too, well, respectful.
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