Aretha Franklin crossed over but her life force is still very much alive. She is a legend and there is no question that the late, great Aretha Franklin could sing. God blessed her with a set of pipes, but what the movie “Respect,” directed by Liesl Tommy, showed us is that it took her some time to find her voice.
Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls”) was Franklin’s personal wish to play her on-screen and it’s also clear, from the film, that Ms. Franklin almost got what she wanted.
What makes “Respect” so interesting is that Tommy wanted the world to know that this great artist struggled, and it was that energy that shaped Franklin’s signature sound.
Originally the film was set to be released in 2020 but COVID-19 derailed that. There is no question this film celebrates Franklin’s accomplishments while celebrating her power as an African American woman moving through the power of civil rights pushing her into her role as an advocate. Here, there is great pleasure in listening to Hudson step into the vocal stylings of Franklin as she recreated many of her famous songs. And there is no question of the emotional impact when Hudson pushes into her re-imagining of the Otis Redding single that lends the film its name.
Franklin’s faith was an important part of her life, and the film, “Respect” begins and ends with her singing in church. The creative team also made the case that her soulful sound was rooted in her religious upbringing—a daughter of the South, her people being hard-working sharecroppers, and her father C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), a circuit preacher.
One of her most beloved albums is “Amazing Grace,” a 1972 gospel album that still sends tingles up and down the spines of listeners. A related project has a very interesting history: “Amazing Grace,” which was filmed by director Sydney Pollack for a documentary, wasn’t released until after her death (2018) because she blocked it for decades.
Penned by Tracey Scott Wilson (“Fosse/Verdon”) who keeps the tone pitch-perfect, the film does not shy away from dealing with Franklin’s drinking problem. It was Franklin who believed she had a “demon” tucked into her personality.
Franklin did not grow up poor, but she did have a challenging childhood, giving birth at the age of 12 with an over-protective father who tried to influence her life and career.
The story begins with young Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner) singing in church, and Tommy makes the smooth choice: using the camera in a 360-degree tour of the church and then back, to her all grown up and skittish around her father and her first husband, Ted White (Marlon Wayans).
There is some irony in her life, with the song “Respect” being one of the greatest female empowerment anthems ever written, but Franklin didn’t live by it for a long time. She allowed Ted to remove C.L. from her life, where he stepped in as her manager, and it was clear that he had an anger management problem, balling his fists whenever he got angry.
Franklin worked hard but after nine albums and not a single break-out hit, she switched labels to Atlantic, taking the sage advice of legendary producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron) to record in Muscle Shoals, Ala. To her surprise, the recording studio was staked with white men and it was there that she cut “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You,” bringing the soulful sound that would define the rest of her career.
It’s also interesting to discover how well-connected her father was and she counted Martin Luther King Jr., Sam Cooke, and Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige) among a wide circle of family friends.
But Franklin learned the meaning of her song, “Respect” and eventually walked away from Ted. His outbursts become too much for her and she began to follow her passions. Then Franklin tells Jerry that she wants to do “Amazing Grace”—in the tone that perfectly reflects the legend she became.
No one can deny that Aretha Franklin is one of the most important vocalists to ever live. What makes the film “Respect” so good is that Hudson, who can also sing, offers a glimpse of an uncertain woman who found her voice, her style, and finally…the respect she earned.
“Respect” starring Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Marc Maron, Tituss Burgess, Mary J. Blige.
MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 145 minutes.