The average musical biopic — and most of them are pretty average — follows a predictable arc: the troubled childhood marked by flashes of genius; the record deals and hit album montages; the marriages torn apart by affairs, addiction and the ravages of fame. Even when these clichés are drawn from real life, it’s disappointing to see great artists reduced to formulas.
Aretha Franklin was one of our greatest artists, and Respect, the new movie about her early years, doesn’t entirely avoid those biopic conventions. But there’s real intelligence and feeling in it all the same.
This is the first feature from director Liesl Tommy and screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson, both of whom have worked for many years in theater and television, and they seem to know that even well-worn notes can sound newly resonant in the right hands. That’s one of the lessons of Franklin’s own career: Respect of course draws its title from an Otis Redding song that Franklin brilliantly made her own.
Like Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues — or more recently, Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in Judy — star Jennifer Hudson doesn’t try to mimic her real-life subject so much as channel her spirit. The illusion doesn’t always take hold; notably, the actor seems less evocative of Franklin than Cynthia Erivo was in the recent miniseries Genius: Aretha. But Hudson is a vocal powerhouse, and her musical performances are frequently electrifying in what’s easily her most significant role since her Oscar-winning debut 15 years ago in Dreamgirls.
Hudson and the filmmakers mean to show us a still-unformed Aretha, who doesn’t yet possess the strong artistic identity and business savvy that will define her reign as the Queen of Soul. We first meet her in 1952 Detroit as a 10-year-old nicely played by Skye Dakota Turner, already wowing churches and house parties with her singing talent. Forest Whitaker is her father, the influential Baptist minister and civil rights activist C.L. Franklin, who exercises a heavy hand over his daughter’s future music career. But Aretha is even more profoundly shaped by her mother, the gospel singer Barbara Franklin, warmly played by Audra McDonald. Barbara dies soon after we meet her, but not before warning the young Aretha never to let her father or any other man exploit her talent, which is a gift from God.
Respect has a good grasp of the tightly interwoven forces — family, religion, activism and music — that shaped Aretha and sometimes threatened to tear her apart. Aretha tries to flee her father’s control by marrying Ted White, played by Marlon Wayans, who becomes her manager. But it soon becomes clear that she’s merely exchanged one domineering man for another. Meanwhile, her musical versatility — there’s nothing she can’t sing — ironically proves something of an obstacle at first. She’s not certain what kind of artist she wants to be.
That changes when she signs with Atlantic Records and joins forces with the legendary producer Jerry Wexler — a terrific Marc Maron — who in 1966 sends her to record with a scrappy but first-rate band in Muscle Shoals, Ala. Respect surges to life in these sequences: It’s a thrill to watch the often soft-spoken, deferential Aretha seize control of her recording sessions, tweaking the arrangement on her first big hit, “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You),” and building a strong rapport with her collaborators. We recognize her brilliance as not just a singer but also an impromptu songwriter.
By the time Aretha is singing immortal tunes like “(You Make Me Feel like a) Natural Woman,” she’s also mustered the courage to leave her abusive husband. From there, the movie becomes more uneven and overwrought, as Aretha’s alcoholism threatens to torpedo her career and family life.
Some of these scenes feel rushed, and they expose other cracks in the storytelling: We spend a lot of time with Aretha’s sisters, both also singers, but her four sons are only partly glimpsed. The movie is also vague in its sense of Aretha as a political figure, apart from brief scenes in which we see her singing at the funeral of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and defending Angela Davis after her arrest.
The road is bumpy, but the film’s final destination is moving. Respect climaxes with perhaps Franklin’s finest achievement, her landmark 1972 album, Amazing Grace, presented here as not just her return to her gospel roots but also her recommitment to God. It’s a lovely sequence that made me want to revisit the electrifying documentary Amazing Grace, which was filmed during those recording sessions, and which is easily the greatest Aretha Franklin movie ever. As even decent musical biopics remind us, there ain’t nothing like the real thing.