Towering performances partially salvage ‘Respect’

Aretha Franklin was a generational talent, an astonishing vocalist whose sound and talent was so extraordinary it took both the right producers and musical settings to properly frame and present it. She truly could sing any and everything, but needed specific songs and backdrops to make it work in the narrower arenas of the commercial marketplace. She also led a life that had numerous difficult situations, one propelled by societal and cultural changes, and highlighted by friendships with giants across art, politics, and religion.

The results of her spectacular career have filled multiple books, but aren’t so easily condensed into the often formulaic framework of a biopic. So director Liesl Tommy, screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson and principal writer Callie Khouri smartly opted to make  “Respect” spotlight a small slice of her incredible journey rather than a birth to death portrait. 

“Respect” only covers the 20-year period starting from 1952, when the childhood Aretha is already turning heads doing gospel numbers in her legendary father Rev. C. L. Franklin’s church, to the struggles at Columbia in the early ’60s, and her ultimate triumphs with Atlantic in the late ’60s and early ’70s. “Respect” concludes with her magnificent return to gospel “Amazing Grace” in 1972 (it’s the subject of its own documentary presentation).

The film features a host of tremendous performances, most notably Jennifer Hudson’s as Aretha. Hudson was chosen by Franklin to portray her, and you can see and hear why throughout. Hudson not only vocally projects and presents Franklin’s power and stage presence (though of course no one can completely mimic it), but also nicely reveals her character quirks and what were often called “demons” regarding her personality.

Franklin was known for having a hair-trigger temper, and sometimes letting circumstances of fame and career growth get to her. But at no time does Hudson ever make Franklin seem malicious or manipulative: if anything she too often lets others in her life, notably her father (superbly portrayed by Forest Whitaker) and husband Ted White (Marlon Wayans in a dramatic role) steer her into situations that are at best questionable, and at worse just wrong. Once things get headed the right way artistically, when new Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron) makes the famous decision to have her record in Muscle Shoals (Wexler said later “I took her back to church”) White nearly sabotages things by getting into fights with studio personnel. 

Still, for a 2 1/2 hour work that’s only focused on a brief, though certainly crucial part of her career, “Respect” gives some parts less treatment than they deserve. For instance, Franklin made her first LP as a 14-year-old for Chess, something that’s glossed over even though anyone who’s ever heard the music (released years later as “Aretha Gospel”) can attest it’s the work of a singular talent ready to explode. The Columbia period is presented as a time when a previously legendary producer John Hammond (Tate Donovan)  tried to make Aretha Franklin into another Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday, but in truth poor label promotion on the company’s part played a big role in the lack of hit tunes along with often less than wise choices of material.

But the film does get right the role Franklin played in the Civil Rights Movement, one that went well beyond just donating money. She actively did benefits and was a presence at events and marches. There was a genuine and deep racial awareness and pride that drove Aretha Franklin, and she was among a handful of top Black stars who publicly came to the defense of Angela Davis. The film also nicely reveals the delicate balance that had to be struck when she began recording with the Muscle Shoals crew, and her initial reluctance at dealing with a white musical crew performing R&B and soul tunes. Yet this was the artistic marriage that helped change the course of Black, indeed American, popular music.

Other noteworthy performances in “Respect” include a short but powerful contribution from Audra McDonald as her mother Barbara. Her independent spirt was certainly passed down to her daughter, even though she died early in Aretha’s life. The child actor Skye Dakota Turner is also splendid as the youthful Aretha, displaying the ideal mix of youthful angst at being thrust into the spotlight, yet possessing the innate confidence in her abilities to know she could blow any song out of the box upon demand. Mary J. Blige is vibrant as Dinah Washington, even though there’s some dispute over whether Washington was ever quite as upset about Franklin performing one of her signature tunes in concert as depicted in the film (after all Aretha did an entire tribute album to Washington).

There are other notable elements of Aretha Franklin’s incredible story omitted. Her ability to re-invent herself in post-soul eras for example, or the impact of receiving the Medal of Freedom, is only covered in footnote form at the end of “Respect.” There’s also a great film to be made about Rev. C. L. Franklin, one of the finest orators of all time, and an extremely influential figure both inside and outside the Civil Rights Movement. His amazing recorded sermon “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest” is a tour-de-force in storytelling and is now in the Library of Congress.

  Overall, while recommending “Respect” due to the authoritative flair of its finest performers, it’s not the definitive presentation that gives Aretha Franklin the cinematic stature she merits as one of the greatest artists in American music history.

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