Cert – 12, Run-time – 2 hours 25 minutes, Director – Liesl Tommy
Biopic following Aretha Franklin (Jennifer Hudson) from her early days singing in her father’s (Forest Whitaker) church, trying to assert her own style and voice against the input of those around her, including her abusive husband (Marlon Wayans).
It seems odd to think about it, but Aretha Franklin often feels like the support in her own biopic. Not just because in some scenes the men around her appear to hold the power over her career, putting there side of things across rather than letting Franklin speak her mind. Sometimes it’s the case that the film appears to focus more on those around Franklin, or the things that happen to her, rather than her responses and own personal thoughts and feelings. There’s clear respect for the iconic figure within the piece, however sometimes this gets caught up in just what’s shown. Certainly things don’t feel wholly sanitised (definitely not in the way Bohemian Rhapsody was), but the film does sometimes feel as if it shies away from depicting a fuller extent of her battle with alcoholism, and especially her abusive first marriage to also-manager Ted White (Marlon Wayans).
With Franklin sometimes pushed to the side, or a point being made about how she was silenced, Jennifer Hudson’s portrayal of the Queen of Soul doesn’t always get chance to truly emerge. You don’t realise just how great she is when only given two or three lines of dialogue. However, when given a larger slice of detail, or simply being allowed to belt out a tune you realise the true extent of Hudson’s performance. It’s reasons such as this why scenes in various music studios are the highlights of the film. As Franklin and the musicians around her mould and work on the structure on songs such as the titular Respect so that they have her own distinct style. It’s these moments that work the best in terms of engagement and keeping the viewer in their place.
The rest of the film doesn’t exactly feel like a textbook biopic – this tone feels just about avoided. And certainly things are fairly watchable throughout, even if you would like for them to be dwelled upon slightly more. Such a feeling stops the film’s nearly two and a half hour run-time from being felt, managing to pass by well enough without ever feeling overlong. And perhaps much of this is down to the effectiveness of Hudson’s performance when she’s given the room and opportunity to truly shine. When reaching the Amazing Grace finale there’s a real chills-down-the-spine, lump-in-your-throat feeling as she belts out the song with a real passion. It’s a passion that’s there for most of the songs that feature in the film, even when used as slightly in-your-face anthems (Think).
“Music’ll save your life” Franklin is told in a formative moment at the piano in her childhood. And that certainly appears to be the case for Respect. It’s the music and the way it comes across that definitely helps the film. There are some good supporting performances throughout, particularly from Forest Whitaker as Franklin’s father and they further help to keep the film going and the viewer engaged. There’s enough present within the piece to carry it along well when it doesn’t quite let Hudson take the centre stage that her portrayal of Franklin should be getting. There’s an odd feeling to such scenes, which border most on a textbook styling. However, when it comes to the musical sequences that act as the real highlights of the film, it allows for Aretha Franklin’s style to truly emerge and shine, picking Respect up and that for the central figure herself not quite getting in the way as much as in the more serious scenes of the piece.
Respect for Aretha Franklin breaks its way into her story making the much more serious elements of her life appear somewhat sanitised. However, when exploring her musical style, and allowing Hudson to give a great performance, the film begins to hit, even if sometimes leaning towards power-anthem stylings.