Directed By Liesl Tommy
Starring – Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans
The Plot – Aretha Franklin (Hudson) sings in her father’s (Whitaker) church choir as a child and grows up to become an international musical superstar and legend.
Rated PG-13 for Violence, Smoking, Racial Epithets, Mature Thematic Content, and strong language
– Complete soundtrack. “Respect” features one of the very best soundtracks of the year, and one that features a surprising amount of depth to the artists assembled. Aside from the queen’s legendary work on tracks like “Respect”, “You Make Me Feel”, or “Chain of Fools”, to name a few, there’s just as many offerings from cherished artists like Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Diana Washington, and most of the cherished artists from the time who influenced a revolutionary. For the previously mentioned Aretha tracks, the collection here is near flawless, especially considering the film only focuses on the first half of Aretha’s iconic career. There’s a fine balancing of tempo and progression throughout the tonal shifts featured throughout the film that lines up accordingly, and when combined with Hudson’s vocal empowering, does a remarkable job of conquering the uphill climb that Jennifer faced in reaching the angelic levels that makes Aretha Franklin one of the most difficult artists to cover, in terms of extraordinary capabilities.
– Top shelf production. In being a period piece biopic set among the Motown takeover of top 40 radio, the seamless touches to the film’s presentation offers a transforming immersiveness that captures our attention in every single shot deposited throughout the film’s cinematography. The wardrobe department has surely earned themselves an Academy Award nomination, sifting through a closet of sequenced gowns and tasteful three piece ensembles that visually convey the clean cut demeanor of Franklin’s middle class family. On top of that, the interiors in set designs emit artistic vibrancy of a bygone era, complete with wood panneling and unorthodox color schemes that paint midwestern consistency in the interpretation of every interior engagement. Finally, the subtlety of the make-up and wig work helps to transform Hudson before our very eyes, and articulate a bodily evolution for Aretha that attains believability despite the two looking nothing alike in visual likeness.
– Honest storytelling. It’s unfortunate that in a majority of contemporary musical biopics that we’ve come to expect a forceful sanitizing of the artist’s life that doesn’t do justice to the essence of their legacy. Thankfully, that isn’t a problem with “Respect”, as the combination of factually dated accuracy and revealing honesty are two elements that make the one word title for the movie more than just an homage to Franklin’s biggest hit. There’s about a 90% consistency rate for the tracks played during particular years meant to channel the cultural wave for the time, but more than that it was the delve in Aretha’s abusive dynamics, both with her father and her first marriage, that was most appreciated in illustrating her emotional evolution, and one that inspired legions of women singing her praises. Because of such, the film has no shortage of dramatic depth and fiery appeal to instill to its storytelling, giving us credible insight that doesn’t always paint her in the finest of lights, but one that values the complete picture in getting matters right.
– Art direction. Also effective in the uniqueness of its narrative are a series of visual devices inside of the story’s timely transitions that recreate some of the more iconic photography in the singer’s memorable imagery. Everything from gala events, to on-stage performances, to album and magazine covers are recreated with a weathered and grainy appeal to the captivation that not only helps to attain believability in the authenticity of the direction, but also helps to fill in the blanks in between those moments of fame that the film doesn’t quite have enough time to sift through. When you view each of these as one collective experiment, it helps to show the conventionalism with not only black artists, but also female ones that were unfortunately prominent for the time, all the while proving that without Aretha there would be no Madonna, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson or any other proceeding artist who grabbed ahold of the torch that Aretha herself lit on fire.
– Musical education. One of those unique subtleties that I appreciate in any musical biopic is the behind the scenes think tanks associated with constructing songs. For too many films, they present these legendary tracks as almost accidental incidents that cleverly attached themselves to one another, but for “Respect”, Tommy shows that the creative process is a long and condemning one, full of endless failures and stylistic molding to attain something that is fresh and needed in the environment for its time. Because of such, almost none of Aretha’s iconic tracks appear until around the halfway point in the film, instead taking us through the first act of her career that was filled with charting disappointments and endless finger-pointing behind the scenes. It proves that it’s definitely a process, but above that speaks volumes about the level of creativity in an artist capable of doing it so many times with no shortage of top 40 success.
– Memorable turns. This review would do a huge disservice to the talented ensemble and the film if it didn’t take time to cherish the work between them. For Hudson, it’s the single greatest and most challenging turn in her critically acclaimed career. In channeling such a humbling and immense figure of the cultural wave for the time, it’s Hudson’s cadence in vocal range that is most appealing to the integrity of her portrayal, balancing the singing with an equally invigorating emotional transformation that is the simmer from a past of influential ingredients. Aside from Hudson, Forest Whitaker was equally entrancing as Aretha’s preacher father with his own emotional demons. Whitaker treads across a thin line of trepidation on his way to cementing a captivating performance that often dares us to take our eyes off of him, so as not to miss the volcanic eruptions that wipe out everyone and everything in its wake. Finally, it’s not often that I get to praise Marlon Wayans, but it’s nice to see him back on the dramatic path, this time as an abusive antagonist to Aretha’s well-being, who not only proves his worth in taking over any scene involving any amount of talent he shares the screen with, but also in the reservation to the role that could’ve become cartoonish without Marlon’s meticulous timing that he often affords the character.
– Mismanaged time. It would be easy enough to say that “Respect” is too long of a movie at 145 grueling minutes, but that wasn’t the problem at all to me, but rather the use of its minutes that are poorly balanced in importance to the benefit of the story. Because this is Aretha Franklin’s story, it’s important to include the whole spectrum, but I felt certain matters on-stage drifted on a bit too long and often for my taste, and left pivotal dynamics like those with Aretha’s mother and sisters on the cutting room floor in a film with as much time allowance as this. On top of this, the pacing of the opening act is a chore to get through, taking more time than expected or necessary with a movie pertaining to an adult celebrity. It’s during this time when the ambitious run time felt the longest, for my money, and summarized much of this script from Tracey Scott Wilson and Callie Khouri as an occasionally bloated mess that doesn’t always maintain the attention of the audience asked to endure its many encores.
– Melodramatic. In any drama, it’s important to balance those overtly dramatic moments with nuanced scenes in between to properly build the tension before their blow-off. Without a build, these moments become heavy-handed and even silly in the way they’re conjured, and that’s the problem with most of “Respect”. Moments like Aretha coming into contact with a group of borderline racist musicians are emotionally mirrored as those of scenes of her facing abuse or even statutory rape. It waters down the magnitude of those pivotal scenes because they happen too often on average, and undersell the value of those reserved moments of exposition in between, that help articulate the many spontaneities of life. This is definitely Tommy’s biggest misstep in her debut feature film, and one that leaves “Respect” feeling the sting of weightlessness despite the abundance of conflict that Aretha consistently faces.
– Familiarity. Even with as many elements of positivity facing “Respect” that has it in the upper tier of musical biopics since 2005’s “Walk the Line”, it’s still a film that can’t escape the telegraphed instances of tropes and endless cliches that damn it into predictability. This is especially prominent with Aretha Franklin, because outside of her music career, I knew very little about her personal life, and was still able to accurately predict everything that entailed throughout the progression of the narrative. I did this with a game I call “Trope Bingo”, complete with rises, falls, battle with drugs or alcoholism, and everything else that apparently every singer ever dealt with, and very few directors are able to digress from. It illustrates the single biggest problem ailing musical biopics, and keeps each of them from being exceptional, for the way they all rub together.
My Grade: 7/10 or B-