Review by George Kozera for Mr. Will Wong
Aretha Franklin was one of, if not THE, distinctive and definitive voices of a generation (especially mine). Having seen her perform live in concert twice, I can attest that her brilliant R&B and Gospel-infused vocals had everyone in the audience shaking their booties and waving their hands in the arm. We not only watched her make President Obama wipe a tear of joy from his eyes at the Kennedy Center Honors, she overwhelmed the usually jaded audience at the Grammy Awards when she replaced an ailing Pavarotti and performed the Puccini classic “Nessun Dorma”. Handpicked by the legendary Queen of Soul herself, Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson had the daunting task of becoming Aretha in the Biopic RESPECT.
Spanning 20 years, the Movie opens with 10-year-old Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner in an effervescent performance) being awoken by her father Reverend C.F. Franklin (Forest Whitaker) to entertain his guests, which include Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige) and Martin Luther King Jr. (Gilbert Glenn Brown). The early scenes cram a lot of information: the strong bond between her and her mother (Audra MacDonald, who we blessedly hear sing a song) and how her death affected her and Aretha getting pregnant at the age of 12.
Eventually, RESPECT seamlessly transitions from young Aretha belting out a Gospel song at church to the adult Aretha singing the same song from the pulpit in Birmingham, Alabama. She meets and is immediately attracted to the swaggering Ted White (Marlon Wayans), much to the chagrin of her father who is now her manager. Reverend Franklin arranges an audition with the legendary Record Producer John Hammond (Tate Donovan) who was responsible for the musical careers of artists as diverse as Springsteen and Bob Dylan to Billie Holliday and Leonard Cohen. He tried to market her as a Jazz-influenced Adult Contemporary singer, but failed miserably. With her career now being managed by Ted, whom she eventually marries, they wind up at a recording studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and put her career in the hands of Producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron is SO great here, it will make you forget he played a similar character in the failed David Bowie Biopic “Stardust”) and an all-white band. When we watch Aretha and the band slowly work their magic and create the classic “I Never Loved A Man (The Way That I Love You)”, RESPECT comes fully alive and incendiary.
Clocking-in just shy of two and a half hours and with a pedigree of a slew of Oscar, Tony, Grammy and Emmy winners in front and behind the scenes, first time feature film Director, Liesl Tommy, hasn’t quite yet mastered the art of juggling many, diverse storylines efficiently. However, in Tommy’s defense, she tackles many topics I haven’t mentioned (Franklin’s addiction to drugs and alcohol to fight her demons, her violent marriage to Ted, her father’s penchant towards settling scores with a gun, her love/hate relationship with her two older sisters who also happen to be her back-up singers, Aretha’s four children, her political activism) with aplomb despite skirting and circling around cinematic cliches. Personally, I was okay with the unyielding length, but would have preferred another musical number versus the Aretha/Ted play the Ike and Tina trope. When we watch how classics songs like “Respect” or “Ain’t No Way” came to life or watch her perform “Think” and “Natural Woman” in concert, we fully understand why Broadway jukebox musicals and cinematic Biopics are so successful. We are instantly transfixed.
RESPECT is not without some faults. It is at times formulaic. To quote a line from one of the Queen of Soul’s monster hit…” every chain has got a weak link” …and in this Movie, it is Marlon Wayans. His channeling Billy Dee Williams (Lady Sings the Blues) and Laurence Fishburne (What’s Love Got To Do With It) is admirable, but unsuccessful.
Lastly, it all falls down to Jennifer Hudson. There is absolutely no denying that Hudson has the vocal pipes; she blows our minds and every surrounding rooftop when she sings, though other parts of the Film pale in comparison. She has the Herculean task of displaying a wide range of emotions and oftentimes she succeeds, other times she’s oh-so-close.
RESPECT ends with Aretha revisiting her Gospel roots and recording “Amazing Grace” at the New Temple Baptist Missionary Church in Los Angeles, the biggest-selling album in Franklin’s career. Hudson’s performance of the titled song rivals the one that won her an Oscar for “Dreamgirls”. Don’t be surprised if lightning strikes twice.
Universal Pictures Canada release RESPECT Friday, August 13, 2021.
*Please ensure you exercise caution in observing COVID-19 protocols if seeing this in-theatre.*
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