Aretha Franklin’s story is finally on the big screen, a decade and a half after she first asked Jennifer Hudson to portray her. In two hours and twenty-eight minutes, “Respect” attempts to shed some light on the upbringing and rise to fame of the notoriously private Queen of Soul. The film traces the singer’s life from 1952 to 1972, and struggles to (accurately) cram in all the details from those two decades. Led by a cast that largely outshines it’s script, “Respect” gives Aretha some of hers, and pulls back the curtain on the Queen of Soul’s life.
The film is titled “Respect” because it focuses on Aretha’s journey to get hers. A conversation young Aretha (brilliantly portrayed by Skye Dakota Turner) has with her mother Barbara (portrayed by the ever-amazing Audra McDonald) early in the film teaches Aretha that respect is crucial. Barbara attempts to instill in Aretha that her voice is hers to use as she pleases, when she pleases. That becomes the main theme of the film, as Aretha finds herself controlled first by her father, renowned preacher Rev. C.L. Franklin (a disappointing, unenthusiastic Forest Whitaker), her abusive first husband Ted White (a stunning Marlon Wayans), and her recurring “demon,” a mix of alcohol and the traumas of her childhood.
Aretha never discussed her issues with alcohol. Her battle with alcoholism caused her to miss studio sessions, tour dates, and even led to a broken arm after she fell off stage while tipsy. The film does a powerful job depicting her little-known struggle, and stages a moving divine intervention scene near the film’s end that leads to her sobriety.
Her parents divorced when Aretha was six, and her mother died of a heart attack when Aretha was 10. “I cannot describe the pain, nor will I try,” is all Aretha could say of her mother’s death in her autobiography Aretha: From These Roots. She tended to see the demons of her youth through rose-colored glasses and gloss over the traumas, unlike her siblings. In one scene Aretha’s sisters imply that their father could be nasty towards women, as he was with their mother. Aretha looks at them with bewilderment and confusion. She has no memory of the fighting between her parents. It was so intense, her siblings remind her, that it drove them out onto the roof and caused them to sing as loud as possible in an attempt to drown it out. She put up high walls to try and escape the dark days.
At twelve and fourteen, Aretha gave birth to her first two children. While she was alive she never shared just how young she was when she had her first two sons, and she never discussed who fathered either of the boys. The film doesn’t address her pregnancies head on, but flashbacks show a pregnant twelve year-old Aretha, and another scene even implies that at least one pregnancy was the result of rape. There is no historical basis to claim that she was raped. It’s never even been insinuated.
The story is often presented in haphazard fashion, and historically the film takes a number of liberties for the sake of condensing the long and complex story. Timelines shift, certain characters blend together, and many of the secondary characters don’t get much character development or even formal introductions.
The biggest misstep of the film though is including a recording session for a song that Aretha never recorded. A romantic scene between Franklin as she’s being courted by Ted White ends with him not taking her home, but putting her in a cab and instructing her to “think about me when you’re singing tomorrow.” Cut to Aretha in the Columbia Records studio recording a bossa nova arrangement of “Nature Boy,” which isn’t known to have recorded or performed. There are a dozen songs from that period that Aretha actually recorded and fit the scene even better. It’s a frustrating oversight.
A standout scene featuring Mary J. Blige as an enraged Dinah Washington is another oversight. Dinah flips a table at the Village Vanguard and scares Aretha off the stage after Aretha takes the stage, acknowledges Dinah, and begins her set with a Dinah cover. It’s a true story, but the target of Dinah’s rage was Etta James, not Aretha Franklin. It sets up the following scene in Aretha’s dressing room where the two discuss artistic direction, and Aretha’s desire for hits, which after four albums, haven’t come yet. Since that narrative is never formally resolved in the film (there’s but a brief mention later and a few photos displayed of Aretha achieving the success she clamored for), maybe it wasn’t so crucial to this story.
For all the in’s and out’s of the script, Jennifer Hudson gives a stellar performance as Aretha Franklin. It’s not an easy role to take on, but Hudson works hard to capture the duality of Aretha Franklin, who is a shy, reserved, and pained young woman in public and private, and a vibrant and animated vocal powerhouse when she steps on a stage. She nails Aretha’s public speaking voice, and comes alive as her visually thanks to detailed costuming by Clint Ramos and of course, an array of stellar wigs.
Most of the other actors also turn in stellar performances. Marlon Wayons is magnificent as Aretha’s controlling and abusive first husband Ted White. The funny man is a far cry away from his days clowning around with his brother on their sitcom The Wayans Brothers. Tituss Burgess turns in a great performance as the legendary James Cleveland. Marc Maron gives a solid turn as Aretha’s producer Jerry Wexler. And Lodric C. Collins, who has minimal screen time, absolutely nails Smokey Robinson’s speaking voice.
The only truly bad performance given in the film belongs to Forest Whitaker, who is lackluster and monotonous as Aretha’s charismatic father Rev. C.L. Franklin. Rev. Franklin’s tone and cadence were singular especially when he was preaching. It seems like Whitaker doesn’t even try to capture it. Courtney B. Vance did a much better job as Rev. Franklin in National Geographic’s Genius: Aretha from March 2021.
The musical moments are naturally the crowning jewel of “Respect,” with performances of “Ain’t No Way” and “Amazing Grace” ranking among the best. Hudson and Franklin’s instruments are built differently, but Hudson does her best to give you a healthy mix of Aretha and Jennifer in her performances. She even took up the piano to embody as much of Aretha as she possibly could. “Respect” is a wild, eye-opening ride that misses the mark in some ways, but Hudson’s performance as Aretha spells out nothing but “r-e-s-p-e-c-t.”
“Respect” is in theaters now.