Aretha Franklin gets full-fledged movie respect in the film with that title, but such admiration comes with both the limits and advantages of the biopic genre. On the plus side, a famous name singing fabulous songs guarantees crowd pleasing moments. Even better, the star role offers Oscar quality opportunities when talented actors step in familiar shoes to recreate beloved figures.
On the minus end, screenwriters almost always find those familiar shoes tread well-worn paths rather than breaking any new ground. If you love Ray Charles or Johnny Cash or Billie Holiday or Judy Garland or Freddie Mercury you know the basic routine for your hero’s story. That pattern usually includes the following:
A good for nothing partner
The fight to gain fame, which leads to...
Dealing with eventual success, which brings on...
Drugs, alcohol, or sex, necessitating...
Conquering those drug-alcohol-sex issues; and finally...
Finishing the story by performing a rousing song.
So, in one respect, Aretha Franklin follows the mold, except of course for her voice and style. Franklin’s distinction as the Queen of Soul lets Jennifer Hudson step in for another shot at an Oscar, singing brilliantly with passion, fury, power, and, well, what else, soul.
Director Liesl Tommy wisely lets Hudson sing live, and the star finds a balance blending her distinctiveness with Aretha’s. An easy hunt on YouTube reveals her flair in clips of Hudson’s American Idol audition or her tribute to Aretha on the BET Network. Joining Hudson, a strong cast lends solid support including Forest Whitaker, Tituss Burgess, and multiple Tony winner Audra McDonald in a too-brief turn as Aretha’s mother.
While most of the performers talk about dark moments and Aretha’s demons, the script sidesteps details. Told in a mostly linear fashion, the story sometimes makes jolting jumps, like a quick transition from the little girl Aretha to young woman. Even more startling, the story suddenly backtracks with a revelation of preteen pregnancy.
This news warrants a lot more than director Tommy’s nicely shot but quick visual that runs just a few seconds. Wait a minute! I thought, but no one waited, and the story moved on without answering a whole slew of related issues. For instance, how did friends, family, and community initially react to a 12-year-old preacher’s kid having a baby? That seems like a reasonable question to me.
But while some answers might exist, the movie falls back on a safer look at the singer’s dynamic songs. Flamboyant costumes, plentiful wigs, glittering lights, and terrific vocals distract from missing details. Top quality production means that Respect offers much to admire despite lacking the kind of originality that made Aretha Franklin herself stand out.
Robin Holabird is KUNR's entertainment reviewer, author and former film commissioner for the Nevada Film Office. You can hear all of her reviews here.