Respect chronicles the trials and tribulations of legendary artist Aretha Franklin. But like most biopics centered around musical figures, Respect is a bit too much like most biopics centered around musical figures.
It takes a while before Jennifer Hudson (Cats) first appears as the adult version of Aretha Franklin in Respect, from Liesl Tommy in her feature directorial debut. The early goings of the film lay all the familiar groundwork, especially for anyone mostly up to speed on Franklin’s troubled childhood. Or biopics in general, really. By the time Respect finally gets its main chorus going, its 145-minute runtime and purposefully delayed gratification will sadly compel some audiences to tune out.
Still, Skye Dakota Turner brings the house down as a young Aretha Franklin, belting a multi-faceted performance as a child being prematurely thrust into the pressures and stresses of adulthood. Partly by her overbearing father, C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), but even more so by the tragic death of her mother, Barbara Siggers Franklin (Audra McDonald).
Eventually, the show must go on. Jennifer Hudson eventually takes the reins on this 20-year crash course on Franklin’s arduous rise to superstardom. First as a civil rights activist at the side of Martin Luther King Jr. (Gilbert Glenn Brown), then later as the Queen of Soul most know her as today. It’s the section in the middle of Respect that warrants the most investigation and justification for a biopic in the first place.
Much of Franklin’s early career could be looked at as an uneventful montage in most other musical biopics. It’s the slow start many artists face before their big break—that hit single or string of hit singles—propels them into sudden, sometimes unwieldy fame.
Respect lingers on Franklin’s early career, when her first stint with Columbia Records produced plenty of albums, but no real hits. Additionally, her volcanic marriage to Ted White (Marlon Wayans) gets its due attention and build-up, though its thematic turns aren’t exactly hard to spot, even for those jumping into this story for the first time.
All we’re asking is for a little Respect.
The film is at its most melodic when it ironically dabbles in the messy process of songwriting and making music in a recording studio. To be clear, this is still a heavily romanticized depiction of what the music industry is really like, but Respect strikes a far better balance than many of its contemporaries. The set up of a single song getting repeatedly iterated and scrutinized until its satisfying payoff in final execution is a truly unique and welcome flair of this otherwise dry script.
There’s much made here about Franklin’s “demons,” as they’re referred to, a bout with depression and alcoholism that straddles a queasy line between traumatic consequences and self-determination. In one sense, the film tries to make it clear that Franklin was a victim of abuse in many forms, but pulling through these circumstances still fell on her. But the film awkwardly tries to insert a spiritual element into her recovery and healing that often rings more convenient than earned.
How sweet her sound.
The 2018 documentary and pseudo-concert film Amazing Grace, a wonderful companion piece to Respect in many ways, certainly uncovers the emotional fortitude of Franklin in far more convincing fashion. By simply showing Franklin in action, expressing her soul to a church audience after producing her first gospel album, Amazing Grace reaches the transcendent heights of what makes Franklin such an enduring icon of blessed, human achievement.
By contrast, Respect is only respectable. Certainly not incompetent or altogether flat, but far from the unmistakable regality befitting Franklin’s full body of work. But Hudson’s pure commitment to this material saves the show, as she spins ho-hum lines of dialogue into passionate declarations of personal growth. It’s no surprise that Franklin’s persona is too larger-than-life to depict in one film, even one this long. But Hudson rises to the challenge without missing a beat.
Respect opens in theaters August 13. Watch the official trailer here.