The Queen of Soul deserves the best—and the best is not “Respect,” a by-the-numbers biopic that focuses on Aretha Franklin’s life from 1952 to 1972. Despite having the right talent both behind and in front of the camera, “Respect” frequently feels like sanitized studio fare, touching on some of Franklin’s personal traumas—from her drinking to domestic abuse to her complicated relationship with her father to the assault that resulted in her giving birth to her first child at the age of 12—but hurrying through them to spend more time on her music.
To be fair, the music is likely what will draw most people to film. Jennifer Hudson plays Franklin (who had tapped Hudson to play her before she passed away in 2018), and it’s a joy to hear her soulful voice perform hits like “Think,” “Respect,” and “Chain of Fools.” The film also spends some time on Franklin’s early career, where she struggled to make a name for herself singing the kind of songs she wanted, instead being coerced into middling success performing standards. Hudson is a vision in her costumes, and she imbues her performance with a strength of will that comes through in Franklin’s determination to get her way both personally and professionally. But her performance when she isn’t singing also feels surprisingly shallow, failing to dig up the emotions that some of the scenes require.
But maybe that’s partly the fault of the script, which zips through Franklin’s life seemingly trying to touch on as many things as possible, then ending at a point that still leaves out significant chunks of her later career, some of which are relegated to a credits sequence that details some of her many awards and honors received while archival footage of Franklin performing “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” for the Obamas at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors plays—and it’s really only then that we finally get a sense of the size, scope, and impact of Franklin’s talent and her career. Even her civil rights work and activism is mentioned, but we barely get to see Franklin in the movie putting action behind those words. What the film does do quite nicely, however, is portray the construction of a song. A highlight of the film is when we see Franklin working with the band at her new label for the first time, trying to figure out the best arrangement for the song “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).” This scene takes its time, as Franklin and the musicians play around with different instruments and rhythms before finally landing on the right one. Later in the film, we see Franklin briefly working on a new arrangement of the Otis Redding song “Respect,” turning it into something completely different and completely her own. It’s in these scenes, maybe even more so than the ones where she is performing on stage, where we realize her genius.
The supporting cast of “Respect” is strong, particularly Forest Whitaker, who plays Franklin’s father, a Baptist preacher who butts heads with his daughter, especially over her relationships. One of those relationships is with her first husband and manager Ted White (Marlon Wayans); Wayans brings the appropriate balance of charm and slime to his character. Marc Maron gets some decent scenes as producer Jerry Wexler, and Mary J. Blige has a memorable moment as singer Dinah Washington, while Audra McDonald appears as Franklin’s mother. Skye Dakota Turner, who plays Franklin as a child, is also worth a shout-out; she brings all the right combination of childlike emotions to the table, but when she sings, we see her light up, and that’s how we know that music is her future.
“Respect” is also the feature directorial debut of Liesl Tommy, who became the first woman of color nominated for a Tony Award for directing a play a few years ago for the show “Eclipsed.” It’s essential to have a Black woman behind the camera for this story about a Black woman, and despite some of my issues with Hudson, it’s clear that Tommy brought her expertise directing actors on the stage to directing actors for the screen. So much of the films’ most important scenes are conversations set within a confined space, and Tommy draws the most out of her actors. But “Respect” ought to be more than just okay, which is what it is. If you want to get a better sense of Franklin as a performer, you would be better off checking out “Amazing Grace,” which is the documentary that chronicles the recording of Franklin’s 1972 “Amazing Grace” album (seen in the last scenes in the movie), and which is currently streaming on Hulu.
Runtime: 145 minutes. Rated PG-13.