‘Respect’ review: Giving a queen her propers
By Manohla Dargis
Ray Charles said that Aretha Franklin “sang from her inners.” For her father, C.L. Franklin, she was “a stone singer.” That’s a good description for a great singer whose voice did something that even some brilliant, technically virtuosic vocalists can’t do. When Franklin was at her most sublime, her voice seemed to give shape to the entirety of human feeling — to the joy and the despair — so much so that it seemed as if she were birthing a twinned version of herself with each breath and soul-stirring note.
The new drama “Respect” is a march-of-time fictionalization of Franklin’s life. Attractively cast and handsomely mounted — Jennifer Hudson plays the queen — it is a solid, sanitized, unfailingly polite portrait. It conforms to the familiar biopic arc: the artist begins humbly; reaches towering heights (artistic, commercial, maybe both); suffers a setback (bad lovers, addiction); only to rise higher still. In album titles, the movie flows to the beat of Franklin’s discography from “The Electrifying Aretha Franklin” to “Laughing on the Outside,” “Spirit in the Dark” and “Get It Right.”
Taken as a whole, the movie — directed by Liesl Tommy from a script by Tracey Scott Wilson — doesn’t hold you firmly, though it has its moments. First, it has to dispatch with the standard preliminaries, including Aretha’s childhood, with its crackling tensions and cautiously muted torments. It’s a story that’s been told before, including by the Franklin biographer David Ritz. Here that life is often in soft focus, and generally sprinkled with tears rather than drenched. Even so, it is catnip to watch the young Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner) wander her family’s house late at night, smiling and hailing partygoers she calls out to as “Uncle Duke” (as in Ellington) and “Aunt Ella” (Ms. Fitzgerald to we mortals).
Tommy, a theater director making her feature film debut, handles the material and its many moving parts with assurance. “Respect” opens in Detroit in 1952, where the young Aretha is living with her siblings under the stern eye of their father, C.L. (Forest Whitaker). A legendary Baptist minister and friend to Martin Luther King Jr. (Gilbert Glenn Brown), C.L. lords over his house with imposing hauteur and an unpredictable temper. Also sternly minding the brood is his mother (Kimberly Scott), who’s helping raise the children. Their mother, Barbara (Audra McDonald), a saintly figure in amber, has split from her husband and lives elsewhere, and clearly has Aretha’s heart.
Everyone and everything in “Respect” looks good if not too movie-perfect. The rooms seem lived in and the people feel real, none more so than Mary J. Blige, who, as Dinah Washington, briefly sets the movie ablaze. Oddly, a showdown between Aretha and Dinah is borrowed from a confrontation Washington had with Etta James. Perhaps that was to give the movie juice, because otherwise the first chunk slides into the sluggish and dutiful. A distinct exception is a shocking, dimly lit image of the young Aretha that made me gasp. It’s a simple, devastating vision of trauma that lingers even as the story motors on and continues to hit the biographical markers: Hello, Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron).
“Respect” succeeds in doing exactly what is expected of it. You may argue with this or that filmmaking choice and regret its overly smooth edges, but it does give you a sense of Franklin as a historical figure, a crossover success story and a full-throttle, fur-draped diva. (As a mother, she remains MIA.) Mostly, it gives you her music, with its passion and power, lyricism and schmaltz. Long after they fell off the charts, these are songs that light you up — with feelings, memories — when you hear them. You sing along with them in your head and, after the credits roll, you keep on singing (and murdering) them.
A line in one of Ritz’s books on Franklin sheds light on the challenges of transposing her complicated life to the screen. “The pain stayed silent in all areas except music, where, magnificently,” Ritz wrote, “it formed a voice that said it all.” The movie has a tough time handling this quiet, and even when Hudson takes over, the character remains frustratingly vague. She’s misty rather than mysterious, maybe because for too long she is drifting along rather than steering her own course. When she walks into Columbia Records, escorted by her father, she is an unanswered question; the puzzlement only deepens when C.L. orders Aretha to stand up and twirl for a surprised record executive.
Things vastly improve once the adult Aretha sits down with some session players and starts pulling apart the songs she will rebuild, discovering “her true voice,” as Franklin’s sister Carolyn (Hailey Kilgore) once put it. Hudson is a deeply appealing screen presence, and it’s a pleasure to watch her just walk into a room. She doesn’t look or sound like Franklin, but she manages the role confidently and with a pure singing voice that more than holds its own. She never feels possessed by Aretha, even when she’s making you rhythmically sway in your seat. Yet Hudson also manages what memorable singers do: she transports you, pulling you alongside her as she takes you up, up and away.
That’s a nice place to be (and to feel), even intermittently, because it’s then that Aretha Franklin flickers before you. She died in 2018 at 76 and her life was filled with agonies that the movie seems anxious to attenuate or ignore, as if the depth of her pain and its rawness might tarnish her legacy. That’s too bad but it doesn’t damage this movie, which finds an enjoyable groove as Aretha falters and triumphs anew. In the end, it is the music and your love for her that keeps you going and watching. With their hooks and oceans of feeling, Franklin’s songs worked on you and worked you over. They entered our bodies and souls, our cultural and personal DNA, becoming part of the soundtrack for our lives.