The most common complaint about the standard Hollywood biopic, especially ones about musicians, is that their subjects’ lives are made to conform to a dramatic arc that isn’t realistic, and thus leave out things that are important for understanding a person’s effect on the culture and exaggerate other things that make for exciting viewing but which shortchange the truth. Liesl Tommy’s movie about Aretha Franklin follows this course predictably but at least keeps its head about the music itself. If Aretha (Jennifer Hudson) was, as many claim, the greatest pop singer of the 20th century, it is vital to our understanding of cultural history to see how that happened. It’s not enough to say that she was a genius, because geniuses still need to get their stuff out there, and in that regard, Respect is better than many other musical biopics.
But we’ll probably have to wait longer for a detailed and honest summation of Aretha’s private life, which she successfully hid from public view. The movie’s depiction of her childhood and adolescence contains only the bare minimum of insight into her—for want of a better word—soul. Raised in solid middle class household by her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), and various female relatives, she was surrounded by music from infancy, since her father’s church, perhaps the most powerful Black institution in Detroit during the 1950s, helped pioneer the gospel sounds that would dominate the genre nationwide. But the movie also credits Aretha’s estranged mother (Audra MacDonald) with instilling in her daughter a love of the American songbook and jazz. This push and pull between the sacred and the secular would always inform Aretha’s art, and Tommy cannily uses that dynamic to explain what made Aretha such a revolutionary artist. Her father oversaw her transition from gospel prodigy to bland jazz singer, thinking that it suited his own view of respectability—he would never countenance the blues, which suggested moral dissipation. However, as a teenager who already had two children, a seminal fact of her girlhood that the movie is too squeamish to explore, Aretha fell under the sway of a family acquaintance, the entertainment manager Ted White (Marlon Wayans), who decided that Aretha’s talents should be steered toward the newly emerging genre of soul music, and though C.L. objected strongly, once Aretha started recording for Atlantic records under the stewardship of producer Arif Mardin, the results were explosive and undeniable. Aretha wasn’t just a powerhouse singer; she was a star fully formed.
Though White is credited with ushering Aretha into the spotlight, it’s difficult to believe she wouldn’t have arrived there without him, and the movie spends too much time on his machinations, which eventually took a heavy toll on her psychological well-being and self-esteem. Tommy doesn’t gloss over White’s DV tendencies, and, in fact, suggests that Aretha channeled his abuse into her most affecting music. The scenes where she commandeers the Swampers, the group of white musicians who played at the Muscle Shoals, Alabama, studio where Aretha first decamped to make her debut Atlantic album, perhaps best represents Aretha’s skills as a musical force. She knew she could sing, but she also knew exactly what she wanted from the music, and Tommy deserves credit for working with Hudson and allowing her room to make the session the emotional and thematic centerpiece of the movie.
From there, however, the film alternates between hair-raising musical numbers, many of which are performed by Hudson in their entirety, and boiler plate soap opera exposition. The movie’s biographical purview ends with Aretha’s return to gospel in 1972, and thus leaves us with the diva still on top. It only hints at the personal turmoil she went through, and would continue to go through for the rest of her life. Come to Respect for the legend, and stay for the music. Everything else is filler.
Opens Nov. 5 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955).
Respect home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc./(c)2020 Metro-Goldwyn Mayer Pictures