An aging Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, bedecked in mink over a cream-colored fishtail dress, sings the words Carole King penned: “You make me feel like a natural woman.” At 74 years old, even the remnants of her once otherworldly voice — a cascade of forceful notes backed by immeasurable spirit — are enough to cast audience members Barack and Michelle Obama under her spell. Franklin stands, dropping her coat to the ground. She belts. She hollers. She unleashes a vocal torrent so strong she brings the house down.
The rapturous footage, captured the night of the 2016 Kennedy Center Honors, isn’t exactly part of director Liesl Tommy’s feature debut, Respect, an overlong biopic about Franklin’s life. Rather, it plays during the film’s end credits as a montage of photos depicting the singer’s many triumphs (gold records, Grammy Awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, her performance at Obama’s inauguration) shuffles past. The preceding two-plus hours of this 145-minute slog — Tommy’s threadbare hodgepodge of bad impressions, gratuitous filmmaking, and even worse depictions of mental health — isn’t even a shadow of the real natural woman.
This movie isn’t concerned with Franklin beyond her hits and reduces her years lived to boxes checked. As a standard, and therefore shallow, musical biopic, it’s more interested in dropping beats than in finding depth. It begins in Detroit in 1952. A 10-year-old Aretha is awakened by her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), to sing to some guests, including Dinah Washington (Mary J Blige), Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington, whom Ree (family and friends call her that) greets as aunties and uncles. In her home, the young girl bears witness to the personal lives of churchgoing men and women with flashes of queerness, as one man slides his hand around another’s waist. Scatting, dancing, riffing on the piano, she covers Fitzgerald’s “My Baby Like to Bebop” with an advanced stage presence.
Unlike her immense voice, Franklin’s childhood is far from perfect in Respect. She is raped during her father’s party (we never discover the rapist’s identity). At the age of 12, she becomes pregnant (we never learn the child’s name). Her father, a womanizing, controlling figure, forces her to sing in church under the guise of pleasing the Lord. Her mother dies suddenly (we’re never told of what). These early tribulations are meant to contextualize Franklin’s later problems with alcoholism, violent men, and “the demon” — a euphemism used by her family to describe her bipolar disorder. Similar to Lee Daniels’s The United States vs. Billie Holiday, the Respect screenplay, co-written by Tracey Scott Wilson (The Americans, Fosse/Verdon), glibly uses trauma to fashion hollow melodramatic arcs.
As the adult Franklin, Jennifer Hudson is a marked improvement over the performance given by the miscast Cynthia Erivo in National Geographic’s Genius. Hudson’s big voice and propensity for extended gospel runs make her a more than decent stand-in. Her presence, however, is lacking. Her character is caught between two worlds: pleasing her father — i.e., becoming a Black Judy Garland, speaking with precise diction, being a model for her race — and making hits, namely by gaining independence from him. There’s an internal struggle happening within Hudson, too: She can’t decide whether to inject her own persona into the story or simply impersonate Franklin.
The actors around Hudson are operating on different pages. Marlon Wayans plays Ted White, Franklin’s controlling, abusive first husband. Slanting his fedora, draping a long coat over his shoulders, and whispering strong-willed flirtations, he’s a cross between Lyle Bettger’s Dutch Heineman in All I Desire and Humphrey Bogart’s Harry Dawes in The Barefoot Contessa. But Wayans doesn’t come close to reaching the heights of those before him. Franklin is supposed to be attracted to White like a bee to a honeycomb. That’s a problem because Hudson and Wayans’s chemistry is nonexistent, in part due to White’s just as nonexistent backstory. Whitaker’s accent wildly swings without warning. Tituss Burgess as James Cleveland lays on thick mimicry, playing closer to a caricature than a real person. Even Marc Maron as famed record producer Jerry Wexler can’t carve a niche in this bloated picture. The script doesn’t provide an emotional center; the ship is sinking, and everyone’s grabbing their own lifeboat to shore.
The two draws for Respect — the resplendent costumes by designer Clint Ramos and a bevy of hit songs — aren’t enough to cover the film’s paper-thin story. It alludes to the singer’s children, who are barely seen and certainly never heard from (one wonders if the filmmakers consider motherhood a mere fragment of Franklin’s life). The icon is hoisted as a civil-rights activist (she was), but the film doesn’t depict her activism. It has the nerve to invoke Angela Davis’s name without explaining her politics. Recordings of crowd-pleasing tracks like “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)” and “Respect” arrive in the familiar made-in-one-night package. And while Franklin’s admirers fawn over her, the lens is indifferent to Hudson. The dry lighting by cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau (Creed II) dulls the inherent glow of Black skin to ash.
Above all, it’s unconscionable how little consideration is afforded to the singer’s mental health. After Franklin goes on a vicious bender during which she’s barely reachable by family and friends, she magically emerges thanks to the appearance of her mother’s ghost. Bipolar disorder isn’t treated by ghosts. It’s a long journey, one Tommy isn’t willing to show. A problem with both Respect and Genius is the vastness of the icon’s life. Her search for her own sound, her role in the civil-rights movement, her marriages, her childhood, her relationships with her father and her little-known sisters, the recording of the record-breaking gospel album Amazing Grace — they could easily make up the plotlines of several movies. In smashing them together, Tommy takes shortcuts that ultimately undermine her subject. This approach may satisfy those who want to bask in Franklin’s music. But if that’s where the hunger lies, I’d suggest playing her records instead. They’re more truthful and soulful than this movie could ever be.
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