by George Wolf
As cliched and formulaic as music biopics can get, they’ve always got a Get Out of Jail Free Card: the hits. They can turn a stale, overly safe narrative like Bohemian Rhapsody into an Oscar contender, and elevate a joyous risk-taker such as Rocketman into another exhilarating dimension.
Respect certainly has some legendary music on its side, but the sublime cast and intimate perspective are plenty valuable as well.
Is Aretha’s the single greatest voice popular music has ever known? She’s certainly in the team picture, which means Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson has a tough gig in bringing Ms. Franklin to life with more humanity than impersonation.
She’s fantastic. A powerhouse vocalist herself, Hudson alters her phrasing only slightly, wisely channeling the breadth of Franklin’s gift over an unnecessary impersonation. But make no mistake, when Hudson starts digging into the Queen’s songbook, there will be goosebumps.
Director Liesl Tommy and screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson – both TV vets making their jump to the big screen – seem cognizant of the tired formula so brilliantly skewered nearly fifteen years ago by Walk Hard. They keep Respect focused on a twenty-year period from ’52 to ’72, and the personal struggles that saw Aretha take control of her life and her music.
Aretha battles to step out from the shadow of her father Rev. C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), her husband/manager Ted White (Marlon Wayans) and record exec Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron), and Respect gives her story the feminist propers it deserves. Tommy keeps the grandness on the stage and in the studio, opting for an understated tone to the human drama that – one or two hiccups aside – gives it depth.
The finale takes us to Aretha’s live recording session for her landmark gospel album, and the film ends as both a celebration of a legend and an invitation to visit (or re-visit) the transcendent experience that is the 2018 documentary Amazing Grace.
Respect. Sock it to you.