There are two ways to look at Respect, the Aretha Franklin biopic starring Jennifer Hudson as the Queen of Soul herself. Yes, it is a character biopic, but it plays and feels much more like a large musical theater Broadway show. And that’s largely due to the director, Broadway veteran Liesl Tommy, and screenplay writer Tracey Scott Wilson’s vision of how music changed with Aretha herself. Which is great—if this was a stage show. While Jennifer Hudson is undeniably vibrant as Mr. Franklin, her story’s overall lack of depth makes this film about a legendary icon feel like a staged reading of her Wikipedia page.
Respect opens with a look at how 9-year-old Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner) lived. Already known for a voice clearly sent from above, she is roused awake on weekends to sing at her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin’s, parties. These aren’t just any parties either. Dinah Washington (Mary J Blige), Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, and others were family friends and regular guests of her dad’s parties.
Though she loves performing at these parties, it’s clear that not only is she the only child present, but she probably should not be there. A statement reinforced by the filmmaker’s suggestion of a childhood rape (implied and not visualized) with a disturbing glimpse at 12-year-old “Re” with a nearly full-term pregnant belly. Shortly after the assault happens, Re’s mom (an underused Audra MacDonald) dies. And from then on, she is constantly running from “demons” that try to pull her into darkness. Or what we now call trauma and depression.
In adulthood, Re’s voice leads to a record deal with Columbia Records‘ executive John Hammond. Though she’s a powerful songstress, it becomes clear that yes, she is a grown woman, a wife, and a mother; she has no idea how to use her strength. So, she follows Hammond’s lead and sings what is assigned (basically). This follows her into alcoholism, another marriage, and a time in Ms. Franklin’s life that is only touched on in the most superficial ways. By a drunken performance where she falls off the stage.
There’s a lot more that happens, but honestly, it feels a little too much like a regurgitation of some CliffsNotes somewhere. Here’s the thing: I love stage musicals, and you can clearly see the filmmakers’ theater chops. But the goal of the stage is the song. The song is the power and the emotion, all at once. Every moment in between is to get to that musical number. This is not the formula to tell a story about a woman whose voice crossed barriers, lifted millions, and influenced the civil rights movement.
But giving so much time to the period where one might say Ms. Franklin was “lost” does not make ending the film in 1972 with her “Amazing Grace” performance notable. On the contrary, it makes it a terrible cliché in a biopic about a woman that was larger than life. Overall, it feels very flat.
And the cinematography does not help. The over-filtration of certain scenes disconnects the audience from the evolution of the singer. Though Hudson channels Ms. Franklin in a way no other can through her voice, Respect needs more than one performance to work. That’s not to say that the rest of the cast wasn’t good. They absolutely were. But the script doesn’t allow for growth that isn’t part of a musical number.
The music itself is worth the watch. Not to mention Jennifer Hudson’s vocals in recreating songs like “Respect” and others. Frankly, her voice sent me to tears over the power she infused in those songs. Additionally, during the credits, footage of Ms. Franklin singing “(You Make Me Feel) Like A Natural Woman” during Carole King’s Kennedy Center Honors was goose pimple inducing. If only the filmmakers didn’t wait until the credits to figure out that Aretha Franklin isn’t an icon because she succeeded despite the trauma; she’s the Queen of Soul because her strength was her actual soul within.