Respect, the new biopic of legendary singer and “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin is, unfortunately, weak and forgettable. But it’s not the fault of Jennifer Hudson, chosen by Franklin herself to play her. Hudson works hard in the role, though her doe-eyed prettiness and softer vocal style take the edge off Franklin’s persona. The main problem is, even in a genre that’s long since become numbingly formulaic, this biopic plods through a rote narrative and makes Franklin’s life story seem somehow standardised, though it was anything but.
There’s the strangest kind of pussyfooting around the more shocking aspects of Franklin’s young life that one would assume would be the foundation of this movie. We get timid hints, such as the way ten-year-old Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner) is gotten up out of bed by her father, C. L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), to belt out a song for the entertainment of rowdy (and frisky) party guests. This tame first scene hints at the notoriously orgiastic partying of Aretha’s father — the charismatic celebrity Pastor Franklin of the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. Even Ray Charles, quite a player himself, called the congregation “a sex circus.”
At his peak in the 1950s, C. L. Franklin’s fame was so great that he commanded $4,000 per appearance at a time when the top act in the nation, Elvis Presley, got $7,500. Prominent black citizens flocked to him. Among his best friends was someone he mentored and supported through the civil rights movement, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr (“Uncle Martin” to Aretha). Top black entertainers were friends and honorary family to the Franklins.
In Respect’s party scene, we see the child Aretha greeting Uncle Duke (Ellington) and Aunt Ella (Fitzgerald). Famed gospel singer Mahalia Jackson was a mother figure to Aretha Franklin, and Smokey Robinson was a childhood pal. And while they were on the road touring with C. L. Franklin’s gospel caravan, Aretha went back to the motel room of singer Sam Cooke, when he was twenty-three and she was…twelve.
In the movie, there are only coy feints at showing what Aretha Franklin’s childhood was like in this “sex circus.” At the end of that same party scene, a male guest insinuates himself into her bedroom to rape her. The implication is that this lone man fathers the two children she bore at a sickeningly young age — between twelve and fifteen.
For obvious reasons, Aretha Franklin never wanted to discuss this subject publicly, but according to most biographical accounts, including the authorized biography by David Ritz, there were two different fathers — one a boy Franklin knew from school, and one an older man who was a family friend.
In the years before Reverend Franklin’s troubled marriage to Aretha’s mother, Barbara Siggers Franklin (Audra McDonald), an accomplished singer and pianist, it was well-known that he had fathered a child out of wedlock with a parishioner who was — and it’s difficult to write this age again — twelve years old. Barbara Siggers Franklin also had a child by another man when Aretha was six, but it was C. L. Franklin’s constant, shocking infidelities that were generally thought to be the reason for the breakup of the marriage.
Again, all this is left out or glossed over in Respect. This is horrifyingly difficult material, but if you’re going to take it on, then take it on. But screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson (The Americans) and director Liesl Tommy don’t. Who knows what kind of sanitizing might have been demanded by producers. Regardless of who’s to blame, the film’s vague gestures toward the confounding reality render everything that happens in the biopic opaque.
Other than a few scenes about Aretha Franklin’s work for the civil rights movement, the rest of the film is occupied with Franklin’s struggle to find her own singing style and take charge of her career, throwing off the dominance of the men in her life: her oppressive father; her abusive first husband, Ted White (Marlon Wayans); Columbia Records producer John Hammond (Tate Donovan); and Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron).
The film charts the cost of her struggles in the form of alcoholism, missed tour dates and public humiliations, battles with friends and family, and finally a psychological breakdown, before she finds a kind of emotional and aesthetic healing in returning to the Baptist Church tradition to record her groundbreaking, self-produced hit gospel album Amazing Grace. (The riveting two-day recording sessions were also filmed in a 2018 documentary called Amazing Grace, directed by Sydney Pollack.)
That’s a very tidy arc. The film studiously avoids any darker implications in Aretha Franklin’s return to the church — her father’s domain — for salvation, emotionally and musically, in a place where, to say the least, the sacred and profane combined to create a dangerous mixture. It’s treated as straight spiritual uplift, not a disturbingly complex homecoming.
The woman who Aretha Franklin became in later years could’ve been dramatised in a very interesting way. Franklin has been widely described as a tough, eccentric, demanding, and often paranoid and difficult diva who insisted on being paid up front in wads of cash and who carried her purse everywhere with her, including parking it on the piano onstage — indicating how central the issue of getting paid was for black talent even after they’d made it big.
Just look at Viola Davis’s extraordinary, insightful portrayal of another great singer, Ma Rainey, in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, to see how powerful it can be to represent both the ongoing damage being done to a black woman of fabulous talent and her angry, indomitable will to showcase her genius on her terms — and get paid — no matter how ugly it gets.
In contrast, the end of Respect is the most banal scene in the film. During Hudson-as-Franklin’s final tour-de-force singing of “Amazing Grace,” we’re informed in subtitles of a series of achievements, awards, and honors Aretha Franklin received later in life. That trite “and the rest is history” ending is remarkably like the one tacked onto the end of the atrocious Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic, On the Basis of Sex. One size fits all when it comes to biopics, I guess.
Maybe someday, some talented filmmaker will break out of this deadening formula and make an interesting film about a brilliant talent. But this sure ain’t it.