‘Respect’ Review: Giving Aretha Franklin Her Propers
Ray Charles said Aretha Franklin “sang from her inside”. For her father, CL Franklin, she was “a Pierre singer. ”That’s a good description for a great singer whose voice did something that even some brilliant and technically virtuoso singers couldn’t. When Franklin was at his highest level, his voice seemed to give shape to the wholeness of human feeling – to joy and despair – so much so that it seemed as if she was giving birth to a twin version of herself with every breath and soul-touching note.
The new drama “Respect” is a running fiction from the time of Franklin’s life. Beautifully cast and beautifully mounted – Jennifer Hudson plays the queen – this is a solid, sanitized, and always polished portrait. This conforms to the familiar biopic arc: the artist begins humbly; reach new heights (artistic, commercial, maybe both); suffers a setback (bad lovers, addiction); only to climb even higher. In the album titles, the film flows to the beat of Franklin’s discography from “The Electrifying Aretha Franklin” to “Laughing on the Outside”, “Spirit in the Dark” and “Get It Right”.
Taken as a whole, the film – directed by Liesl Tommy from a script by Tracey Scott Wilson – doesn’t hold you tight, although it does have its moments. First, he has to deal with the standard foreplay, including Aretha’s childhood, with its crackling tensions and cautiously muted torments. It’s a story that has been told before, including by Franklin biographer David Ritz. Here, this life is often hazy, and usually watered with tears rather than drenched. Even so, it’s catnip to watch young Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner) wander around her family’s house late at night, smiling and greeting the revelers she calls “Uncle Duke” (as in. Ellington) and “Aunt Ella” (Ms. Fitzgerald to us mortals).
Tommy, a director who made her film debut, confidently handles the material and its many moving elements. “Respect” opened in Detroit in 1952, where young Aretha lived with her siblings under the stern eye of their father, CL (Forest Whitaker). Legendary Baptist minister and friend of Martin Luther King Jr. (Gilbert Glenn Brown), CL rules his house with towering height and an unpredictable temper. Her mother (Kimberly Scott) also takes care of the brood, which helps in raising the children. Their mother, Barbara (Audra McDonald), an amber holy figure, has separated from her husband and lives elsewhere, and clearly has Aretha’s heart.
Everyone and everything in “Respect” looks good if not too perfect for the movie. The rooms seem inhabited and the people feel real, and neither does Mary J. Blige, who, as Dinah Washington, briefly sets the film on fire. Oddly enough, a confrontation between Aretha and Dinah is borrowed from a confrontation Washington had with Etta James. It was perhaps to give juice to the film, because otherwise the first piece slips into the slow and conscientious. A distinct exception is a shocking, dimly lit image of young Aretha that made me gasp. It’s a simple and devastating take on the trauma that lingers even as the story moves forward and continues to hit biographical markers: Hello, Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron).
“Respect” manages to do exactly what is expected of him. You may dispute this or that shoot choice and regret its overly smooth edges, but it gives you a feel for Franklin as a historical figure, a crossover success story, and a fur-draped diva at full throttle. (As a mother, she remains MIA) Above all, she gives you her music, with her passion and her power, her lyricism and her schmaltz. Long after they’ve fallen off the charts, they’re songs that light you up – with feelings, memories – when you hear them. You sing along with them in your head, and after the credits roll, you keep singing them (and murdering them).
A line in one of Ritz’s books on Franklin highlights the challenges of bringing his complicated life to the screen. “The pain has been silent in all areas except the music, where, beautifully,” Ritz wrote, “she formed a voice that said it all.” The film struggles to deal with that calm, and even when Hudson takes over, the character remains hopelessly vague. She’s hazy rather than mysterious, perhaps because she’s been drifting for too long rather than going her own way. When she enters Columbia Records, escorted by her father, it’s an unanswered question; the bewilderment only escalates when CL orders Aretha to get up and spin around for a surprised record manager.
Things improve dramatically once adult Aretha sits down with a few session players and begins to separate songs she’ll rebuild, discovering “her true voice,” as Franklin’s sister once said. , Carolyn (Hailey Kilgore). Hudson is a deeply engaging onscreen presence, and it’s a pleasure to see her walk into a room. She doesn’t look or sound like Franklin, but she handles the role with confidence and with a pure singing voice that holds more than her own. She never feels possessed by Aretha, even when she rocks you rhythmically in your seat. Yet Hudson also handles what memorable singers do: she carries you, pulls you alongside her as she takes you, high and far.
It’s a great place to live (and feel), even intermittently, because that’s when Aretha Franklin flashes in front of you. She died in 2018 at the age of 76 and her life has been filled with agonies that the film seems anxious to tone down or ignore, as if the depth of her pain and harshness could tarnish her legacy. It’s a shame but that doesn’t damage this film, which finds a nice groove as Aretha falters and triumphs again. Ultimately, it’s the music and your love for it that keeps you going and watching. With their hooks and oceans of feelings, Franklin’s songs worked on you and made you work. They have entered our bodies and souls, our cultural and personal DNA, becoming part of the soundtrack of our lives.
Rated PG-13 for language, violence and child pregnancy. Duration: 2 hours 25 minutes. In theaters.
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