*The following article contains mention of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and alcoholism.
Three years after her passing, Aretha Franklin’s long-awaited biopic is finally out in cinemas. Musically, the breathtaking tribute to the Queen of Soul is guaranteed to knock a few socks off, but is this devastating portrait of trauma afraid to push down?
“Honey, find the songs that move you”, advises Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige) as she perches gracefully on the edge of a makeup table in a jazz club dressing room, bourbon in hand and dripping in white fur, “until you do that, you ain’t goin’ nowhere.” The timid twenty-one-year-old Aretha Franklin (Jennifer Hudson) wipes the tears from her eyes with a tissue as she examines her reflection in the mirror. Despite her late mother’s warning, Franklin’s voice has been trapped under the thumb of her father, the illustrious Reverend C. L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), and with four jazz albums and no hits to date, Aretha is becoming desperate. Letting her father go as her manager will be one thing, but it will take a lot more than that to make her voice heard.
Respect begins at the Franklin family home in 1952. On saturday nights, the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong pack the parlour wall-to-wall to hear 10-year-old Aretha sing. After the earth-shattering death of her mother, family friend and ‘King of Gospel’ James Cleveland (Tituss Burgess) reassures her, almost prophetically: “music will save your life.” While he may be right, things will get a lot worse before they get better. Respect follows the journey of a timid preacher’s daughter from Detroit as she battles greif, abuse, and addiction in her ascent to the title of Queen of Soul.
The most innocent pleasure in this latest contribution to a tidal wave of musical biopics is the sonic fusion of Aretha Franklin’s musical virtuoso and Jennifer Hudson’s ethereal voice. It’s no surprise that the casting decision works so well; after all, Franklin chose the Broadway powerhouse personally, insisting: “You’re going to win an Oscar for playing me, right?” For months before filming, Hudson worked with music and movement coaches to make sure that every detail was spot on, from the way she connected with the piano like an extension of her fingertips, to the way she swung her hips from side to side as she glided down the aisle of a church.
J.Hud’s impressively nuanced depiction of the bashful introvert in her youth resists the temptation of slipping into the commanding persona that Franklin adopted in her later life. While some critics were disappointed by this portrayal of the Queen of Soul minus her quick wit and zany personality, Hudson understands that these qualities didn’t come naturally to Franklin. It took many years of metabolising the loss of her mother and the rape that produced her first son at 12 years old to become the strong, confident character that the public came to know and love. That being said, Hudson’s acting is almost destined to be upstaged by her other-worldly vocals, and even though her rendition of the artist is admirable, the reported ‘Oscar buzz’ feels a tad optimistic.
While Hudson’s golden pipes belting Franklin’s classics certainly makes for an electrifying watch, it’s something we have seen time and time (and time) again. The truly original (and delightfully indulgent) musical moments in Respect are the ones which reveal Franklin’s talent for arranging and production. In one scene, an insomniac Franklin sits at the piano of her New York apartment in the early hours of the morning, riffing over the chords of a popular Otis Redding song. She wakes her two sisters (who also happen to be her backing singers) and gives them a refrain to croon in harmony: “Just a little bit / Just a little bit”. She tinkers with the bassline, cranks up the pace, and comes in over the top with “Yeah baby / When you get home”. When she adds “Sock it to me”, the three sister erupt into girlish laughter, as if they were joking around in their childhood home, rather than arranging one of the greatest feminist anthems of all time.
Aretha’s complicated family relationships sit at the dramatic epicentre of Respect. The familiarity of Whitaker and Hudson’s father-daughter dynamic (which they have already portrayed on screen twice before) lends a believability to their relationship, and the candid depiction of marital abuse from her first husband, Ted White (Marlon Wayans), allows for a deeper appreciation of her artistry. “My friends keep telling me / That you ain’t not good / But oh, they don’t know / That I’d leave you if I could.” These lyrics from her breakout hit single ‘I Never Loved A Man’ take on a harrowing new meaning when Franklin records them just hours before White pins her against a motel room wall and gives her a black eye.
However, if there is an area in which Respect feels ill-thought-out, it’s the handling of Franklin’s mental health. In the public eye, she always tried to paint the most pleasant picture of her personal life, and while writer Tracey Scott Wilson and director Liesl Tommy opt to include the many horrific abuses that she endured, they seem cautious to really dig in and explore how they might have affected her psyche.
Presumably this comes from a place of wanting to honour her memory, and a reluctance to cross the line into trauma porn, but the result is a depiction of abuse that doesn’t know where it stands, and an audience aching to feel more moved than it really does. When the star finds herself burned out, intoxicated, and alone at rock bottom, the apparition of her deceased mother who ‘saves’ her feels like an easy way out; the realities of recovery are messy and brutal, but Respect isn’t willing to do any of the heavy lifting.
For the most part, Respect is pure pleasure to watch, and the 145-minutes of superb acting and meaty tunes absolutely flies by. This film is worth the ticket even just to bask in the sheer artistic harmony of Aretha Franklin and Jennifer Hudson, and if you can let yourself be carried away by its Hollywood happy ending, then you’ll leave the cinema with a smile on your face, a lightness in your chest, and a hell of a lot more respect.
Words by Jake Weaver
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