When Liesl Tommy’s Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect” opens, Aretha is still just a kid, hoping to please her dad (the formidable minister C.L. Franklin, played here by a well-cast Forest Whitaker) with her out-of-this-world pipes. Aretha (played as a child by Skye Dakota Turner) gets her wish: her high-flying dad rouses her from sleep to come downstairs and share her gift with a packed house of carousing pals. It’s a strong opening to an otherwise rote biopic about a singular talent, one that plunges us immediately into Aretha’s world and skills, while also making clear just how little control she has over all of it. And while young “Ree-Ree” delights in sharing her abilities with a house full of awestruck adults, the sense that she’s just a pawn for others’ desires is one that will haunt Aretha — and her career — throughout Tommy’s film (until, of course, she busts loose in perfectly prescribed cinematic fashion).
As the party spins out, Dinah Washington (a remarkable Mary J. Blige, underused here), already jealous and likely knowing that the pint-sized crooner was coming for her crown, notes that while Aretha may be a kid, she’s got “a voice going on 30.” Turner, a talented singer in her own right and here making her onscreen debut, plays Aretha with believable maturity and gravitas. The girl has skills, exhibiting real showmanship and passion, hallmarks of Franklin’s work that are respectfully rendered here. But young Aretha’s life isn’t all sunshine and singing, and after a one-two punch of horrific personal traumas, she temporarily stops speaking. And while she does eventually start talking (and singing) again, the rest of the film is just as invested in what happens when the so-called “demon” takes hold of her as it is in charting her rise to eventual “Queen of Soul” levels.
Mostly, “Respect” serves to remind how little of Franklin’s life was really hers, at least until she grabbed it with both hands (truly, the film is called “Respect” for many, many reasons). Even happy moments — like when C.L. announces the pair are traveling to New York City to meet with record producers — are tinged with confusion. Who exactly made that choice? And what does it mean for Aretha? No one cares to ask, but the undercurrent of discomfort it inspires is very real. Plot movements like that, seemingly awkward on their face, but later proving to speak to the film’s themes, run rampant throughout the film. Not all of them work.
Many of Tommy’s choices vacillate between inventive and baffling, like the decision to have Hudson — who had just turned 37 when filming began on the project — play Aretha from age 17 and up. The first appearance of Hudson, care of a swirling tracking shot that starts on young Turner singing, glides through her daddy’s packed church, only to land back on Hudson, now in the role, is jarring. Turner was just 10 at the time of shooting, playing Franklin from age 10 to 12, and to suddenly turn her into Hudson, a grown woman, rankles. But perhaps that’s the point: teenage Aretha, still a child and one who had been through so much, was suddenly expected to be a woman, or at least to present as one. The intent is unclear, and so is the execution, but at least it means we’re treated to Hudson slipping into Franklin’s life for entire decades.
And those decades fly by, care of fake archival footage, shortcut dramatizations (Aretha gets drunk, and suddenly the sound is gone; Aretha can’t remember something, and the whole world goes fuzzy), and a dizzying array of intertitles meant to remind everyone of times and places. None of it feels very rooted, but Hudson tries her hardest to keep things steady.
As is too often the case with biopics of remarkable people, the film’s script is peppered with hammy lines that would seem more comfortable embroidered on a pillow, rather than spoken aloud. “Your daddy doesn’t own your voice,” young Aretha is told. Later, a well-meaning family friend promises “music will save your life.” In early adulthood, a colleague advises that she “finds the song that suits you!” We get it. Aretha did, too, and the film makes it plain just how very much she did want to succeed. Soon enough, she’s nine albums in, and without a bonafide hit. What she does have — a bad relationship with her dad, an abusive one with her first husband Ted White (Marlon Wayans, in one of the best performances of his career), and a panache for acting out — isn’t getting her anywhere.
Enter: Marc Maron? Continuing his unlikely act as Hollywood’s go-to music producer dude (he trod similar territory in the recent off-brand David Bowie film, “Stardust”), Maron stars as the brilliant Jerry Wexler, who helped Franklin find her real voice. When Aretha, Ted, Jerry, and company alight to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where a pack of talented white dudes help unlock what would become Aretha’s signature sound, “Respect” finally comes to life — just like Aretha. Hudson opens up, the songs start flowing, and the window into what made Franklin just so special temporarily goes wide. Soon enough, however, it’s shut up again.
Part of that is surely due to the expansive nature of the film, which still concludes in the late ’70s, leaving open long stretches of Aretha’s life wholly uncovered, save for a handful of post-scripts that only offer up the highlights of her career before her death in 2018. Even with a script from Tracey Scott Wilson and Callie Khouri that gamely attempts to condense the early part of Franklin’s professional career, “Respect” feels far too narrow, despite the (paradoxical) appeal of sequences that are allowed to simply breathe. Franklin’s time with the Muscle Shoals crew could make for its own film, and it’s easily the best bit of this one, but the demands of commercial biopic filmmaking don’t embrace that sort of framing. It’s always time to move on to the next chapter, even if the last one hasn’t satisfyingly closed.
The film also fails to touch upon some of the more painful headlines and traumas that besieged Franklin during her life and career, including her decades-long battle with her weight and a deeper exploration of her parents’ fraught relationship, while leaning into other elements that have only gotten attention in recent years, like the abuse she suffered as a child that resulted in the births of her first two children. And yet “Respect” does make the space to include some of Franklin’s work with the civil rights movement, including sequences that see her all but begging family friend Martin Luther King Jr. (Gilbert Glenn Brown, exhibiting appropriate charisma) to let her more actively participate in his work. So much of “Respect” is about Aretha wanting more — and so desiring to work for it — and it’s disheartening that this well-meaning exploration of her legacy seems doomed to inspire that same hunger in its audience.
An MGM release, “Respect” will be released in theaters on Friday, August 13.
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