A biopic about queen of soul Aretha Franklin is a daunting ask for any director and whoever is tasked with playing the central character. This time, the responsibility lies with acclaimed Broadway director Liesl Tommy, who makes her feature debut with Respect, and the wonderful Jennifer Hudson, who was given the blessing of Franklin herself before she passed in 2018.
With that knowledge comes the realisation that Respect is an estate-approved project. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but when the film frequently feels a bit too reverential, you wonder where the truth lies. This is especially the case when so little time is spent dealing with Franklin’s bleaker moments, filled with booze and paranoia meltdowns, compared to her Detroit childhood and days of stardom. A more streamlined chronicle of the artist’s deeper traumas could have made for a more powerful and less *cough* respectful affair.
Conventional though it is, there’s no denying that the whole show is anchored by a terrific performance from Hudson, and there’s little doubt that her name will pop up when it comes to awards season. Faced with the challenge of portraying a legendary musical icon, she makes Franklin believably bombastic and vulnerable without resulting to showboating. Her turn is transportive, as she wisely doesn’t imitate her subject’s voice so much as perfectly channel her spirit. Other performers do a great job, top of the list being Marlon Wayans, who plays Aretha’s first husband Ted White as a villain you can truly hiss at.
Sadly, the project ultimately pales in comparison with their combined efforts, and we return to the fact that this should have been a more focused affair. The upcoming biopic Spencer, for all its faults, zones in on a specific few days in the life of the late Diana, and is stronger for it. Respect could have done with a more aimful approach and is yet another reminder that dauntingly rich and tumultuous lives cannot be confined or compressed to tidy three-act narratives.
While the film does carefully flesh out various aspects of Aretha Franklin’s life, it falls between two stools, trying to give fans a faithful overview while ensuring that novices are treated to a complete and comprehensive timeline. It succeeds in doing both, but the end result, while miles ahead of the sanitised dreck that was Bohemian Rhapsody or the clunky The United States Vs Billie Holiday, still feels a little too flat.
Respect does its subject justice, but it lacks the soul of the ultimate Aretha Franklin film, the 2018 concert film / documentary feature Amazing Grace. Don’t believe me? Check out my interview with music producer / director Alan Elliott, who brought the project to cinemas following the death of original director Sidney Pollack – that is an Aretha Franklin film really worth your time.
Respect / D: Liesl Tommy (US, 2021), with Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans. Starts Nov 25.