by Mark Hobin
Let’s start with the fact that the Queen of Soul herself handpicked Jennifer Hudson to play her before she passed in 2018. She knew what she was doing. Jennifer Hudson is an entertainer whose life story could also form the basis of another fascinating biography. Hudson initially rose to prominence as a finalist on the third season of the singing competition American Idol in 2004. She even sang two Aretha songs on the show: “Share Your Love With Me” and “Baby, I Love You.” Despite making the Top 12, she struggled to maintain popularity with the audience and only placed seventh. Then somehow turned that relatively mediocre finish into a feature film debut as Effie White in Dreamgirls in 2006. The role garnered widespread universal acclaim. A slew of awards followed including the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. The accomplished Grammy-winning singer has continued to appear in films.
If it wasn’t obvious from my introductory paragraph, Jennifer Hudson is the heart and soul of Respect. She is incredibly compelling. Conversely, the production follows the rote story beats of a traditional biopic. It begins with Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner ) as a 10-year-old girl circa 1952 growing up in Detroit. We meet a domineering father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), and a sympathetic mother Barbara Siggers (Audra McDonald). They are separated. The young girl performs to the delight of partygoers at her father’s behest with luminaries like Dinah Washington and Sam Cooke in attendance. It sounds idyllic, but her childhood was tainted by trauma and tragedy.
Aretha’s adult life had its share of difficulties. She gained notoriety but was also fraught by dark periods. These episodes are referred to as her “personal demons.” After a string of 9 albums with Columbia and no hits, she changed labels. At Atlantic, she meets veteran record producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron) and eventually achieved mainstream success in 1967 with her 10th record Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. The title track and the #1 “Respect” were both smash hits. Her career would take off from there. The chronicle recounts an abusive relationship with husband and manager Ted White (Marlon Wayans). After they break up she dates tour manager Ken Cunningham (Albert Jones). Along the way, the pressures of fame predictably drive her to drink. The trials and tribulations culminate with her biggest selling disc, the live gospel recording Amazing Grace in 1972.
Aretha Franklin would continue to have hits well into the 1980s. A string of successes for Arista Records included the classic 1985 album Who Zooming Who. A follow-up would include her duet with George Michael. “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” was a #1 single. That kind of achievement for women of a certain age is such a rarity. I wish the film had touched on that decade.
Respect is a conventional account that offers a smattering of wonderful numbers. Of course you’ll hear the title track, which was recorded by Otis Redding first, but you’ll also learn the genesis of the arrangement. The recreation of an iconic concert where she performs the song at Madison Square Garden is mesmerizing. There’s a host of other performances each one a joy in their own right. Aretha Franklin sings “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, “Chain of Fools”, “Think”, and “Amazing Grace” among them. The vocals are so good that you’ll be fidgeting in your seat waiting for the next tune. This is a 2 hour and 25-minute movie. There’s a lot of information packed in this chronicle. Truth to tell, I didn’t know much about Aretha Franklin’s life. I did learn some things, although her Wikipedia article is just as informative. Respect is a serviceable biopic that presents the highlights of a career. This works best as a Broadway-style jukebox musical where the songs are the point. Jennifer Hudson makes it worth watching.