Aretha Franklin had a ready-made life for a biopic, that much is easy to see. I mean that in both a positive and more mixed way, too. On the one hand, she’s had the sort of trials and tribulations, along with success, that biopics are made for. On the other hand, is there anything here that we haven’t already seen done in other films. Well, Respect is somewhat stuck in the middle. The quality acting, music, and production values (not to mention the singing) separate it from the pack, but it’s still a garden variety biopic. The singer led a life worthy of being depicted in the movies, but the movie itself is mostly a paint by numbers affair. Luckily, enough elements are here to make it a flick worthy of at least a slight recommendation.
Respect is the sort of biopic that luckily avoids being a cradle to the grave depiction of its subject. By at least narrowing the focus a bit, it doesn’t just feel like a greatest hits collection. There are hints of that, to be sure, but the cast, led by a really strong Jennifer Hudson, tiptoe around that. You’re not getting a re-invention of the cinematic wheel here, but you are getting an entertaining Hollywood production, and that counts for something.
This is a biopic that looks at Aretha Franklin (mostly played by Hudson) from her youngest days until her seminal Amazing Grace recording. Here, we see her emerging as a young talent, nurtured by her Reverend father C. L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), but also pressured as well. A child of divorce, she’s urged by her mother Barbara (Audra McDonald) not to let anyone, and especially any man, own her voice.
As an adult, that’s tested, as her husband and manager Ted White (Marlon Wayans) doesn’t always have her best interests at heart. However, when producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron) suggests some changes, a chance at hits emerges. Of course, it’ll be up to Aretha to manage all of these conflicting voices, ultimately relying on her own for survival. It goes without saying that she becomes the Queen of Soul, but it was a bumpy ride, as you’ll see here.
Jennifer Hudson had yet to blow me away, at least until this. Leading the way, she gives a dynamite performance that allows you to see why Aretha Franklin was such a beloved figure. She’s at her best singing, of course, but the vibrancy of the woman shines through. Anyone who still doubts her from Dreamgirls will have nothing to complain about here. Hudson is best in show, but Marc Maron isn’t far behind, Maron’s depiction of Jerry Wexler is full-throated and often amusing. Maron sometimes seems like he’s playing himself on screen (entertainingly so, to be sure), but this is a true performance. If this project catches on, watch out for him in Best Supporting Actor. In addition to the aforementioned Marlon Wayans and Forest Whitaker (both fine, but often forgotten about by the story), the supporting players include Mary J. Blige, Titus Burgess, Tate Donovan, Hailey Kilgore, Audra McDonald, Brenda Nicole Moorer, Saycon Sengbloh, and more.
Director Liesl Tommy has clear reverence for Franklin, and that leads to a bloated running time. At the same time, however, as soon as things get boring, they pick up. You may find the sequences of her struggles with alcohol to be rote, but you likely will also love the section dealing with Muscle Shoals. Tommy knows where to focus, even if she bites off more than she can chew. The script from Callie Khouri and Tracy Scott Wilson, on the other hand, is fairly generic, so Tommy’s passion for the work is important. The writing pair never really have a moment that screams “this is why the film needed to be made” so the visuals and overall direction make up for it.
Oscar wise, Respect likely isn’t a serious Best Picture contender, but Hudson could definitely make a play in Best Actress. A lot will depend on the rest of the category, but she’s not going anywhere right now. She’s decidedly in the race. Below the line possibilities like Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup & Hairstyling, and Best Sound do loom large, while the aforementioned Maron could be a surprise Supporting Actor nominee is all goes well for the flick.
Respect will play for biopic fans, as well as those who love Aretha Franklin music. Luckily, booth elements are hardly in short supply. As much as the film has flaws, it has a healthy reverence for its subject, which translates into a passion that’s infectious. You’ll clearly see where the movie falls short, but it’ll do enough right to make it worth your time. Respect didn’t need to nearly be two and a half hours long, but it’ll end up winning you over.