By Dwight Brown
“They want to hear you sing,” Reverend CL Franklin (Forest Whitaker) says to his 10-year-old daughter Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner). And she did. She eventually sang in 25 Grammys, a special posthumous Pulitzer Prize citation and history books.
How Franklin became the Queen of Soul and loved by millions is the subject of this fairly detailed and highly entertaining biofilm that traces her rise from her childhood to 1972 and her making of the classic live-recorded album, Amazing Grace. . This project stars Jennifer Hudson, the singer chosen by Franklin to play it. Like a queen anointing a princess, Franklin judged, “I’ve made up my mind, and it’s you, girl, I want to play with.” This approval makes this Respect the quintessential biodrama of Franklin and all the others, not so much.
Detroit 1952, ten-year-old Aretha is an early musical prodigy praised by her father CL, loved by her grandmother (Kimberly Scott, The Abyss) and envied by her siblings. Years later, as a young adult in the 1960s, Franklin (Hudson) visits churches with her father who watches her like a hawk, fending off suitors. CL helps her daughter land a recording contract with Columbia Records in 1960, and Franklin
releases jazz / pop oriented albums with little success. When she meets the con artist turned manager Ted White (Marlon Wayans), CL is irritated: “You are not leaving this family for this trash!”
Yet this is when Aretha finds her rhythm. She develops her own soul music, which begins with the gospel / blues “I Never Loved a Man”, recorded with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Band on Atlantic records in 1967. The rest is soul music history.
Director Liesl Tommy and the film’s producers made a smart decision when they blackmailed the entire cast live. It’s a strategy that has worked wonders for Les Misérables, and this directive gives performances and recreated recording sessions an authenticity that enhances artistry. Whitaker, Hudson, Turner and Audra MacDonald as a mother sing songs. Titus Burgess as Reverend Dr James Cleveland, Franklin’s Musical Mentor, Saycon Sengbloh as Adult Sister Erma, Hailey Kilgore as Sister Carolyn, and Brenda Nicole Moorer as Brenda harmonize well. Their voices are heavenly, which makes the songs richer. Classics like “Dr. Feelgood”, “Think”, “Ain’t No Way”, “Chain of Fools” and “Sweet Sweet Baby (Since You’ve Been Gone)” resonate so much that the music carries the film on all of them. difficult points.
The screenplay of playwright-turned-screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson didn’t miss much during the star’s formative years: Franklin’s often strained relationship with his domineering father, teenage and teenage pregnancies, domestic violence. White’s notorious outbursts and the singer’s bouts of alcoholism. The final two plot points provide some of the film’s greatest drama, times when Aretha was marked for her life, humiliated in public, and confronted with inner demons that set her on the path to self-destruction.
This human fragility is balanced by exhilarating moments (recording her first hit), displays of courage (civil rights activism with MLK and support for Angela Davis) and creative breakthroughs (watching the scenes where she arranges songs with the group is magic). The characters, big and small, are well drawn with depth and dimension. The dialogue floats safely above a soap opera feel. Mom to daughter: “Your daddy doesn’t have your voice. “
For two hours and 25 minutes, tight editing (Avril Beukes, Queen Sugar), a constant influx of historical moments, catchy concerts, interactions with famous people (Dinah Washington played by Mary J, Blige, Clara Ward by Heather Headley and Smokey Robinson by Lodric D. Collins) and Franklin’s life story will fascinate you. The production’s design (Ina Mayhew, Queen Sugar) aptly recreates the 50s, 60s and 70s. The eye-catching clothing (Clint Ramos, Lingua Franca) suits the characters and the era; their only imperfection is that they often look too new, not inhabited.
Most of the ensemble’s performances are strong, with Hudson as its anchor and her vocals as its strongest asset. While her acting can’t match that of a skilled actress (Viola Davis, Angela Basset) and her accent seems to waver at times, she does convey the emotional trauma the star experienced in some very impressive scenes. Her interpretation of Franklin, when she sings, imitates her gait and
gestures and displays that the badass attitude captures the right aura. The scenes in which Hudson wears an afro wig and revel in her Young Gifted and Black militant phase are the ones where she most closely resembles Franklin.
Whitaker as a bossy father who tests his daughter is rightly irascible. All those who play sisters, young and old, sing and play well. Marc Maron as legendary record producer Jerry Wexler is lively enough while Burgess as musical director Rev. Cleveland just shows the right sensitivity as Franklin’s emotional foundation. If there’s a weak link, it’s Marlon Wayans as troubled and abusive husband Ted White. Its performance is lukewarm and superficial. A real pro, like the
The late Chadwick Boseman, would have taken this opportunity to transform White, a central figure, into a memorable and menacing one. Wayans does not.
What is seen is so fascinating and the story so gripping and important that when the film ends at Franklin’s famous church concert, you wish there were more. This is where a traditional theatrical film format falls short. The Soul Queen has had a life so rich and long that she could complete a miniseries and not touch all of the breakthroughs, influential moments, and endearing moments that made her such an icon.
Yet her legacy has been captured in her records, a bio book Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin and now in a film that captures her essence and diffuses it through the vocal pipes and acting prowess of the only woman Franklin herself deemed it worthy to tell her story. The whole production is reverent, but Jennifer Hudson should be especially proud. She did her job. She should bow. The soul queen knew what she was doing.