'Respect' is Another Overstuffed Music Biopic

Four ladies sing on stage
A still from RESPECT

Music biopics risk making the same mistakes as any film about a person's life. Choices must be made. Otherwise, you have a film with no narrative and mostly facts. Such is the case with Respect, a biopic featuring the life and musical legacy of iconic singer Aretha Franklin. Despite a passionate performance from Jennifer Hudson, one of the 21st century's most celebrated singers, Respect lasts a runtime that well exceeds the average viewer's interest and comes across like a dry Wikipedia page. The movie is directed by Liesl Tommy (an award-winning theater director), with screenplay written by Tracey Scott Wilson (The Americans).

Respect follows Aretha Franklin's life from her childhood until her recording of the live Amazing Grace album, with both bookends taking place in her hometown of Detroit. As the movie opens, young Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner) lives in the home of her wealthy preacher father Rev CL Franklin (Forest Whitaker). As an adult (Jennifer Hudson), Aretha accompanies her father on a preaching circuit across many churches, and the pair even join up with Martin Luther King Jr. (depicted by Gilbert Glenn Brown) on one of his crusades. She contracts with multiple music studios in New York, finds her true sound in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and tours around the world with her performing ensemble, ending up in Detroit again. In addition to all of this traveling, the movie covers sexual abuse Aretha experienced as a child, her tumultuous relationship with her father, the death of her mother, her abusive marriage to Ted White (Marlon Wayans), and more besides.

Two Black women talk in a dressing room
[L-R] Jennifer Hudson as ARETHA FRANKLIN, Mary J. Blige as DINAH WASHINGTON in RESPECT

Aretha undoubtedly has a rich life worth unpacking, and the timing feels right to pay homage to her life and the gift of her music. But at the end of the day, viewers want to leave a biopic feeling like they understand who the subject was as a person. Respect shows the highs and lows of Aretha's life and career and not much of the middle. It's in the everyday middle where a person's heart and soul can truly be found. People are more than the sum of the things that happen to them. Just featuring the highs and lows comes across as overdramatic and sensationalized.

The highs here refer to the musical performances. Music Producers Jason Michael Webb and Stephen Bray took great pains to reconstruct the songs played in the film using period appropriate equipment and sound tools. These highs feel joyful and give Jennifer Hudson a platform on which to shine vocally, but music performances can be accomplished with an album or tribute-to concert.

A Black woman is offered to shake hands with a white man
[L-R] Jennifer Hudson as ARETHA FRANKLIN, Marc Maron as JERRY WEXLER in RESPECT

As far as the lows, the worst offense plays out with the inclusion of a plot point about childhood sexual abuse. We understand that a guest at a party molested Aretha. The scene is done tactfully, but it's a triggering scene nonetheless. This childhood trauma never gets resolved. In different parts of the film, the abuse hangs over Aretha like a cloud. It impacts her marriages and relationship with her father. And yet, she never shares her victim story with anyone during the runtime of the film. The inclusion feels exploitative instead of necessary to the story. While it's okay to show the pain of someone's life, this focus on the many traumas Aretha went through feels like the opposite of the Black joy audiences seek today.

To be fair, there are particular moments that capture the type of "middle" I can get behind. The first occurs when Aretha travels with her Atlantic Records agent Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron) to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record an album with The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Up until this point, Aretha's creativity remains untapped because she is busy trying to please others instead of being true to herself as an artist. While Aretha and her husband initially reject the notion of doing soul with an all-white band, Aretha decides to give it a shot. The studio scenes, during which Aretha builds the anatomy of her sound, flow with a natural joy. Aretha turns the formula upside down and runs the show. This segment effortlessly shows the strength of her talent and leadership.

Three Black women play around a piano in night clothes
[L-R] Hailey Kilgore as CAROLYN FRANKLIN, Jennifer Hudson as ARETHA FRANKLIN, Saycon Sengblogh as ERMA FRANKLIN in RESPECT

The other shows Aretha and her sisters Erma (Saycon Sengblogh) and Carolyn (Hailey Kilgore) working on music at home around a piano. Aretha has the basis of her arrangement of Otis Redding's Respect and plays it for them. Together they workshop the layers of the tune, and the palpable chemistry between the trio captures an authentic sisterhood. They integrate family jokes and nicknames into the song that we remember from earlier parts of the film. The scene with the three pajama-clad sisters shows the heart of Aretha and why she loved soul music and performing. Unfortunately, moments like these are few and far between.

Jennifer Hudson does well with the musical aspect and does her best to channel the Queen of Soul. However, not a moment passed when I wasn't aware that I was watching Jennifer Hudson on screen. She never transformed into the character the way I would hope. Forest Whitaker pulls off the role of the larger-than-life Rev. CL Franklin. Seeing how demanding and frightening the Reverend could be sheds light on how strong Aretha had to become to defy him. Costume designer Clint Ramos really knocked the wardrobe out of the park. Clothing and hairstyles reflect several decade of fashion and Aretha's iconic style from the 1960s onward.

Respect could have improved with additional editing and a tighter focus on one throughline of Aretha's journey. The film tries to cover her relationship with her father, her journey to independence and being the captain of her own ship, her discovery of artistry, and how her mother's death left a hole in her life. Yet I left the movie feeling that I learned nothing about Aretha I couldn't glean from a reference book. In many ways, Respect feels like a musical theater production, which isn't surprising due to Liesl Tommy's background as a theater director. In any case, the door to making a compelling biopic about Aretha Franklin remains wide open for the right storyteller.

Release info: August 13, 2021 in theaters

Final score: 3 out of 5