A capable cast, led by a worthy Jennifer Hudson, and a plethora of recognisable hit records may be enough to satisfy a surface level bassline when it comes to the story of soul legend Aretha Franklin, but Respect, for all its good intentions, doesn’t quite feel like the story such an icon deserves.
At around 145 minutes, and with a story outline that Franklin herself gave her blessing to, one would expect Respect to truly expand on a lifeline that so few of us could ever fathom of experiencing. Similar to how Bohemian Rhapsody was void of the dirt and the warts-and-all mentality that a biopic surrounding Freddie Mercury should’ve embraced, Respect, though it touches on some truly dark themes, adopts a similar formulaic temperament.
The film’s early moments surrounding her 10-year-old-self (an impressive Skye Dakota Turner) are some of the more effective in the grand scheme of the overall narrative, showcasing her genuinely astonishing vocals and leaning in to the support system (or, perhaps, lack thereof) she had surrounding her; it’s also in these early moments we are privy to the shocking sexual abuse she received, and though this implication is unnerving – and, thankfully, only suggestive – it’s an indication that director Liesl Tommy (marking her directorial debut) and screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson (TV’s The Americans) aren’t afraid to adopt a certain ugliness in their telling.
That ugliness, however, is largely overlooked. Though a heavy-handed look at Franklin’s life would certainly not be the most pleasant of viewings, a little less rose-coloured tinting could have truly served as a benefit to its overall footing. Perhaps the reasoning for largely playing it safe though comes down to Franklin herself seemingly not recalling many of the abuse-related incidents that plagued her childhood; the film doesn’t suggest she forgets her own abuse, but the implied domestic abuse between her parents (Forest Whitaker and Audra McDonald) is a topic she genuinely approaches with a blank gaze.
Franklin’s teen years through to early 30’s see her portrayed by Hudson, who, even if she hadn’t been handpicked by the Queen of Soul herself, would have undoubtedly been the prime casting due to her proven talents as an actress and singer. It’s effortless the way she belts out a hoard of Franklin’s signature tunes, but as Aretha she adopts a certain fry in her accent and enunciation that highlight her evident love and, well, respect for the dearly departed figure.
The subject of abuse and its cyclical mentality comes to light through her volatile relationship with Ted White (Marlon Wayans, once again proving his strength as a dramatic actor), her producer and later husband who brought out the best and worst in her as a performer and a woman. The scenes of her performing in the studio and on stage are mostly a joy to view – one sequence of her stumbling on stage is quite heartbreaking – and it’s understandable that Tommy would utilise Hudson’s strength as an entertainer throughout to the film’s benefit.
Respect plays a little fast and loose with Franklin’s own timeline – record deals and relationships aren’t always given the most fleshed-out treatment – and, like recent female-fronted biopics like The United States Vs. Billie Holiday and Judy, it focuses on a select time in her life as opposed to her entire existence; the film finishes up in her 30th year when she records the gospel album “Amazing Grace” live at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, a record that would go on to win her a Grammy Award and stand as both the biggest selling record of her career and the highest selling live gospel music album of all time.
Not the show-stopper it should be, Respect feels a little more like a greatest hits package rather than one cohesive unit of work. Hudson gives her all in a film that think it’s honouring its subject but is more pandering and hoping the best of intentions is enough. Sure, there’s respect here, but it doesn’t quite take care of its business.
TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Respect is screening in Australian cinemas from August 19th, 2021