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All she’s askin’ is for a little ‘Respect’

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Biopics are actually pretty easy to make. Take your standard music biopic, for example. You’ve got a prominent figure who has lived a life in the spotlight, one with already extant stakes and needle drops just waiting to happen. Telling the story of someone when there’s a built-in audience ready to hear it? Yeah – easy.

Making a GOOD biopic, well … that’s another story.

Now, the line can be a bit blurry. There’s a lot of mediocrity out there in the music biopic sphere, but sometimes that mediocrity can be elevated into something more – more engaging, more impactful – if both the central figure and the person playing them are compelling enough.

Take “Respect,” the new Aretha Franklin biopic directed by Liesl Tommy from a screenplay by Tracey Scott Wilson. In many ways, it epitomizes the formulaic nature of the genre – beat by beat, it seems to evoke all of the cliches that come with making this sort of film. There’s a paint-by-numbers quality to the proceedings; even the aspects of the story with which we are not familiar are rendered in an extremely familiar way.

And then there’s Jennifer Hudson.

Hudson offers up a legitimately incredible performance as Franklin. She embodies and evokes the Queen of Soul with a fiery, flawed majesty that is absolutely mesmerizing to watch. We all know that Hudson can sing, of course (though the justice she does to some Aretha classics impresses and surprises nevertheless), but it’s her work as the woman rather than the singer that makes this a transcendent turn. Her efforts explode outward from the so-so framework by which she has been surrounded – she’s unforgettable in an otherwise forgettable film.

“Respect” isn’t quite a cradle-to-grave biopic, focusing on Franklin’s life from the age of 10 up through the recording of her iconic 1972 live gospel album “Amazing Grace” – a roughly 20-year span. The choice gives us a sense of Franklin’s upbringing as a child before taking us into a career that would turn her into a musical icon, all while avoiding the often-ineffectual aging effects that can undermine the final act of a biopic.

In 1952 Detroit, 10-year-old Aretha Franklin (Skye Dakota Turner in her feature debut) already has a golden voice. Her father, noted preacher C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker, TV’s “Godfather of Harlem”), takes great pride in showing his daughter’s talent off, both from the pulpit and at the lavish, celebrity-strewn parties he hosts at his home. Still, there are struggles – Aretha faces a number of tragic happenings in her youth.

In the early 1960s, a now-grown Aretha (Hudson) takes her talents to New York City. Her father – now serving as her manager – grows ever more domineering and controlling, even as Aretha casts about in search of the sound that will truly define her. She makes a number of records and even tours, but she can’t quite seem to break through.

Things grow even more complicated due to her relationship with Ted White (Marlon Wayans, “On the Rocks”), a music manager and hustler with a hot temper and an abusive nature. Despite the volatility of their dynamic, Aretha allows Ted to handle her business dealings. When Aretha joins forces with Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron, “Stardust”), a music producer who believes in her and wants nothing more than to help her in her quest for hit records, we’re off to the races.

Suddenly, Aretha’s star is ascendant. Her voice lends itself to the mellifluous blend of gospel and R&B that would help define the genre of soul music – she turns songs like “Chain of Fools” and “I Never Loved a Man” and “Ain’t No Way” and of course the title track into anthems, making them irrevocably her own.

But in the midst of her professional success, her personal life is strained. Her relationships with her father and her sisters ebb and flow. She finds herself in a battle with substance abuse. Shame and guilt from the past are her constant companions. And yet, through it all, she pushes forward as she completely and utterly owns the sobriquet “Queen of Soul.”

“Respect” is about as straightforward a biopic as you can get, ticking box after box as it plays itself out in an entirely predictable manner. The bad times are here, but with little depth – it’s all surface level. The movie is fairly well-made, but the reality is that at almost two-and-a-half hours, it’s simply overstuffed; it’s not bad, per se … just a bit boring.

And yet, at the risk of belying that previous sentiment, Jennifer Hudson is flat-out electric.

The best biopic turns are the ones that serve as interpretations rather than imitations – these films suffer if the leads essentially serve as tribute artists. The imitations feel gimmicky; interpretations allow everyone – audience and performer alike – a little breathing room to embrace the essence without getting bogged down in the minutiae.

That’s what Hudson gives us. She’s not trying to “do” Aretha; she’s trying to convey the essence of Aretha. It might seem like a semantic difference, but I assure you it isn’t – what we get here is a portrait of an artist, rather than a photograph. Hudson is a powerhouse in her own right and uses her considerable talents to make Aretha all her own while also staying true to the spirit – the soul – of the icon.

The supporting cast is fairly strong as well. Whitaker breathes life into a man that could have played as a caricature; he finds a modicum of depth, though he’s a bit heavy-handed. Young Turner allows us to hit the ground running. Maron is low-key delightful as the cheerfully abrasive Wexler. Audra McDonald is wonderful as Aretha’s mom and Mary J. Blige straight-up kills in a cameo as Dinah Washington.

And yes, the music is outstanding – no surprise there. There’s so much music, in fact, that the film occasionally starts to feel almost like a musical (which, frankly, might well have been better than what we got).

On its own merits, “Respect” is a fine, albeit formulaic music biopic. However, thanks to an outstanding centerpiece performance by Jennifer Hudson, it becomes something far better – and far more memorable – than it might otherwise have been.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 16 August 2021 08:56

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