20 July 2024

Film Review – Respect (2021)

The story goes that when Aretha Franklin was asked who she wanted to play her in a biopic, there was only one name on her lips. Jennifer Hudson. She got her wish, as her actor of choice steps in front of the microphone as the legendary Queen of Soul in Respect, the second time this year her life has been brought to the screen (National Geographic’s Genius: Aretha Franklin is currently in Disney+). But do we get our wish? Just a little bit?

A preacher’s daughter and one of three sisters, Aretha’s is the standout voice in the church choir, a talent her father (Forest Whitaker) agrees should be developed. With him as her manager, she signs for a record label and has some moderate success but, frustrated by his control over her professional and private life, she takes up with smooth talking Ted White (Marlon Wayans) and signs a contract with Columbia Records. Her rise is meteoric as she starts performing her own songs and others, turning them into what became landmarks in the history of soul. But behind the outward success was a more troubled woman, haunted by memories from her childhood and struggling to make her personal voice heard.

It’s all-too-familiar territory and, despite a tone that more than lives up to its title, the film offers no variation on the troubled musical genius formula. Nor does it make any attempt to. Liesel Tommy’s direction and Tracey Scott Wilson’s script make sure that every cliché we expect from the genre is there, from the controlling father and near-saintly mother, to the domestic arguments and violence and the retreat into drugs and alcohol. That’s not to question the accuracy of the story or belittle Franklin’s personal struggles, but the result is a film which almost feels like a tick box exercise, using her best loved songs as punctuation to mark the most significant moments in her life. Admittedly, there’s an effort to use her story to highlight female empowerment and, while it strikes the occasional chord, it’s sadly underdeveloped, amounting to little more than a procession of men she needs to overcome.

As a vehicle for Hudson’s vocal and acting talents, it’s more successful. She captures Franklin’s on-stage charisma so that some of the musical numbers are total knock-outs. Away from the on-stage sequences, she injects some life and passion into the material she’s given and a character that, like most of the rest of the film, feels designed to fit the formula. It’s a performance that deserves a better movie and the sad fact is that she’s very good in a very average film. Even the supporting cast, which includes Whitaker, Audra McDonald, Marc Maron and Mary J Blige, are given pre-packaged characters. In Whitaker’s case, chances are you’ll be more fascinated by his extraordinary ability to stay the same age – he doesn’t sprout a single grey hair – throughout the film. He deserves better, too.

In keeping with convention, as the credits start to roll, we’re shown footage of the older Aretha, still singing and with a vocal range almost miraculously untouched by age. After two hours, they’re easily the most affecting moments of the film, and the very fact that it takes the real Franklin herself to provoke an emotional response says much about the film. But little of it is positive.

★★


Drama, Biopic | Cert: 12A | Universal Pictures | Cinemas, 10 September 2021 | Dir. Liesel Tommy | Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Marc Maron, Mary J Blige.


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