Updated: Feb 3
If you don’t love it, respect it: narrative tropes in a “rise to stardom'' story are to be expected. Fame tends to have a ripple effect in a lot of celebrities’ lives, manifesting in the unsavory ego and unsatisfactory addiction. If you’re not anticipating a rise, a fall, and a breakthrough for your role model, then what the hell did you come to the theater for, anyway? Walk the Line and What’s Love Got to Do With It are easy comparisons for the plight of their respective musical giants. So if Leisl Tommy, in her debut single-woman directing job, isn’t going to take the risks in this department, there has got to be some overwhelming talent in the star.
No other person besides Jennifer Hudson could have taken on Aretha. Franklin herself specifically requested for the American Idol alum turned Oscar winning actress for Dreamgirls to play her in the movie version of her life. Her voice, even without Ms. Franklin’s brilliantly composed music, brings instant chills for its range and genuine power. It is no shock that with a little bit of glitz and the right dramatic timing, her renditions of such greats as Think, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, and the titular Respect will resonate enough to produce goosebumps and tears. Any person in tune to the arduous process of “creating a hit” will no doubt recognize that the music writing is the most fascinating part of the journey. Tommy and her crew truly come through with a couple excellent recording studio scenes, particularly one which takes place in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, that combine the magic of film with the magic of a memorable, cohesive sound. These scenes are a bit scattered across the nearly 2.5 hour runtime, but when they happen, the true enlightenment of a performer in her element comes to boot. Clint Ramos’ costumes are more than sufficient to showcase the elaborate wardrobe of the Queen of Soul, and Kramer Morgenthau’s camera occasionally finds its perfect rhythm and light.
You’ll notice that a lot of these compliments are either cosmetic or music-oriented. This is the biopic of a performer, after all. But what of the depiction of her personal life? Well, reader, let’s just start with saying that every single music biopic SHOULD have an R rating. What film sales they may lose from the odd 12-16 year old not being able to buy a ticket, they will gain back in truthfulness and propriety. Rocketman was able to infuse new life into a stale genre with its dream sequences and surprising edginess. The facts of Ms. Franklin’s life make it so that even if you were to skim over the fact that she may have been molested as a child, a kid in a theater will still have to think deeply about the fact that she was pregnant as a 12 year old. An R rating could better outline the facts of her childhood, flesh out the hot & cold relationship between her and her first husband, and depict her alcoholism without overly relying on shaky cam and drunk goggle lenses. Additionally, by dancing around these delicate subjects through vague flashbacks, the audience inevitably loses some of the impact of the first forty minutes of the movie when Aretha is portrayed as a child. It makes no sense to incorporate flashbacks if the intent was to draw a chronological depiction of her troubles. The flashbacks are not used frequently enough to justify a “connecting-the-dots” sort of self-discovery arc, and the very existence of them takes the audience out of a tension-inducing scene. The cheesy “album release over a black screen” transitions to indicate passage of time were also groan-inducing. A simple montage would suffice to paint the necessary picture, especially in regard to her civil rights efforts, which were surprisingly minimized. It’s hard to cast Martin Luther King Jr. in a movie without him upstaging the main character, but simply name-dropping him after one brief scene together doesn’t really justify the incorporation of his actor.
It should be said that the assembly of Black talent here is something to be celebrated. Outside of Ms. Hudson, who should be credited with the definition of the term “scene-stealer,” Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, and Audra McDonald make for very compelling forces opposite Hudson. Wayans should 100% stick to dramatic acting, as his portrayal of the slimy, commandeering Ted White was quite convincing. Perhaps it’d be even more convincing if Aretha’s and his toxic sexual obsession came to front, or the fact that he did more bad on the streets than just beating up a couple of bouncers, but regardless, he was better than expected. It was unusual to see Titus Burgess in a serious role, and although his rendition of a Chicago accent sounded more like a bad impression of Don Corleone, he provided the much needed good energy to seal the deal with the final act.
The climax of the movie, without spoiling, is something to be reckoned with. If you’ve seen Sydney Pollack’s late release of the documentary Amazing Grace (2018), you’ll know the kind of full-body rejuvenation that comes with Ms. Franklin singing church songs live. Still, nothing quite prepares you for the euphoria of watching her lips and seeing it happen. It is live, it is beautiful, it is soul. Anything that soured you for the first two hours seemingly evaporates in the presence of that incredible sound.
So, does it subvert expectations? Probably not. But not all movies are designed to do so. Syncing up specific songs with Franklin’s internal revelations helps structure an emotional response. The extended limitation of Franklin by her father and then her husband should lead to an instance of liberty and self-gratification. A childhood shouldn’t be ignored if it’s the substance that makes a person who they are as an adult. Eliminating flashbacks and securing an R rating are ways to combat cliches, but they don’t change the essence of the character at the center of the movie. Respect is thus successful, without twisting too many arms. The ideal lead and a clear understanding of what makes Aretha Franklin’s music so resonant to such a wide body of people ensure that, even with its private life platitudes, it earns the respect it deserves.