THE STORY – Aretha Franklin sings in her father’s church choir as a child and grows up to become an international musical superstar and legend.
THE CAST – Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Marc Maron, Tituss Burgess, Saycon Sengbloh, Hailey Kilgore, Skye Dakota Turner, Tate Donovan & Mary J. Blige
THE TEAM – Liesl Tommy (Director) & Tracey Scott Wilson (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 145 Minutes
By Josh Parham
Of the many tales as old as time, few have had such a lasting impact on the cinematic landscape as the biopic of a famous musical artist. It is an entire subgenre that aims to portray the turbulent life of a heralded individual filled with significant accomplishments and tragic downfalls. These depictions have occurred with such frequency that tropes have emerged, and it has become vitally important to innovate the presentation lest the film fall victim to pedestrian storytelling. Some examples have found such innovations to make them more intriguing. In the case of “Respect,” the conventions are still in full force in an overburdened narrative that is anchored by a compelling lead performance.
The film chronicles the life of legendary singer and musician Aretha Franklin (Jennifer Hudson) and how she rose from humble beginnings to her notable status as one of the greatest musical talents of the modern age. Starting with her gospel roots under the tutelage of her domineering preacher father (Forest Whittaker), she soon finds herself in New York City on the cusp of a promising career. After a slow start in the industry, she becomes romantically involved with Ted White (Marlon Wayans), who also serves as her manager. Searching for independence, she is inspired to finally sing with her own natural soul and personality, which helps her become the recognizable persona many know today. However, with fame also comes the dark trauma that has haunted her since she was a child. Keeping those demons at bay while also fulfilling herself personally and professionally is fraught with revealing discoveries.
There is no question that Hudson’s performance supports much of this film. There is an incredible amount of emotional depth that she effectively taps into, often in a subtler manner than one would expect. Her affectations can take some getting used to, but she carries a natural presence that transforms her into a magnetic figure. She naturally embodies the grace and regality of Franklin while also ensuring that her more conflicted personal depths are explored. There are moments of bold histrionics, but Hudson manages to create a sensitive portrayal that makes the realization of an internal struggle felt deeply. There isn’t quite the same amount of charm that Hudson has displayed in previous performances, but she is a compelling figure nonetheless.
Hudson is the most notable player in this ensemble, and the supporting actors that surround her have a wide range of effectiveness. Whittaker’s stoicism mostly comes across as uncharismatic, to the point where his presence is stilted and dry without ever becoming engaging. The same is said for Wayans, whose stiff performance is worsened by his lack of chemistry with his onscreen partner. However, some make a greater impression. Skye Dakota Turner has an infectious energy as the young Aretha that is immensely pleasing. Marc Maron fits surprisingly well as Franklin’s music producer and immediately finds a pleasant tone that makes him humorous and endearing. Audra Macdonald has an all too brief appearance as Franklin’s mother, but even a short glimpse in her eyes conveys so much depth. Mary J. Blige has what amounts to an extended cameo in a role that is blunt but alluring. The ensemble is a mixed bag, but it is full of credible actors working with flawed material.
Said material is at the heart of the major issues with this film. The story here does find itself trading in many tropes the genre has been accustomed to, the most fatal being the scope of the storytelling. The script by Tracey Scott Wilson, with story assist from Oscar winner Callie Khouri, attempts to cram so many essential details in Franklin’s life without ever lingering on enough to make them meaningful. As it traverses her traumatic childhood, rising fame status, tumultuous relationships, mental illness, alcohol addiction, and spiritual awakening, the script simply bites off far more than it can chew. It leads to an inflated sense of pacing and a messy, unfocused narrative with stunted character arcs. Liesl Tommy’s direction is serviceable but mostly unassuming and not aided by a smoky haze that drowns every frame of the cinematography. Still, the occasional flare of direction helps to give vibrancy to the stale story and flat dialogue. The usual highs and lows one would expect to see in such a depiction are here, lacking any real creativity to make them fascinating.
What one’s expectations are of “Respect” compared to similar fare that came before it will most likely be an accurate deduction. There is no denying Hudson’s commitment to the role, managing to give a soulful performance that carries much of the film. The supporting cast around her is not always consistent in their effectiveness, but there are enough gems to warrant praise. Unfortunately, the script’s ambitions cloud the story’s natural progression, leaving the plot feeling overstuffed and somewhat hollow. Sadly, this particular example of a biopic does not find itself possessing an extraordinary execution to make it a singularly accomplished effort. No doubt others will come in the future that will attempt to find better success.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Jennifer Hudson delivers a compelling performance that is naturally magnetic. Some of the supporting cast is endearing and entertaining.
THE BAD – The scope of the narrative is too broad, leaving the story bloated and unfocused. The character arcs are messy and disjointed. The filmmaking is primarily serviceable, and while there are good members of the ensemble, there are just as many bland, stiff performances.