Film Review: Jennifer Hudson magnificently channels the Queen of Soul in “Respect”

MANILA, PHILIPPINES — In the history of pop music, few names are as big as Aretha Franklin. From the 1960s until her passing in 2018, “the Queen ‘of Soul” was a music-making machine who churned out timeless hits like “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman)”, and so many others. Yet for all of her success, Franklin too had a darkness that threatened to derail her career. That rise, fall, and rise again is presented in the biopic starring Jennifer Hudson titled Respect.

Ten-year-old Aretha Franklin (Skye Dakota Turner) is woken by her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker) and asked to perform in front of his friends. Aretha has been bringing the house down whenever her father has asked her to sing and music has helped her deal with her parents’ separation. When her mother, Barbara (Audra McDonald) visits, she advises Aretha to only sing when she feels like singing. Unfortunately, Barbara dies suddenly, causing Aretha to refuse to speak for a time.

A few years later, a teenage Aretha (Hudson) has been touring with her father and receiving acclaim from luminaries like her father’s friend, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Gilbert Glenn Brown). Meeting producer Ted White (Marlon Wayans), he begins flirting with Aretha, something Rev. Franklin strongly disapproves of. The reverend gifts his daughter a plane ticket to New York and they secure a recording contract with Columbia Records.

After recording a few albums of jazz standards and covers, Aretha is becoming frustrated that she still hasn’t recorded a hit. Ted re-emerges into her life, which places them in direct conflict with her father. Aretha leaves their home, has a son with Ted, and signs a new record contract with Atlantic Records and record producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron). Still searching for a hit while suffering abuse from Ted, Jerry convinces Aretha to record an album away from New York and instead in far off Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The rawness of the studio musicians proves magical for Aretha and the hits begin to unfold one-by-one.

Perhaps no one has been more prepared to portray Aretha Franklin in a biographical film than Jennifer Hudson has been. She shared in an interview that years before Franklin died, the veteran singer had asked her if she would win an Oscar for bringing her story to life. The combination of her acting ability as well as the ease with which she can sing powerful songs that Franklin made famous made Hudson’s casting a no-brainer, and she shines throughout this film.

Exploring aspects of Franklin’s life that many did not know, such as her sexual abuse as a child resulting in being a mother at the age of 12, her physically abusive first husband, and her alcoholism is almost standard fare these days for any biopic. Just look at films like Ray, I Walk the Line, Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, and the like and the formula is clear. The musician’s talent is discovered, there’s an astronomic rise in popularity, a catastrophic fall, and a chance at redemption to end the film.

Respect is no different in that sense. The biggest difference between this film and those examples (aside from Ray) is that Hudson does her own singing here like Jamie Foxx did when he portrayed Ray Charles. Biopics can prove to be starmaking vehicles for an actor that establishes their acting credentials, but Hudson doesn’t necessarily need that. She won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 2007 for Dreamgirls and has appeared in over a dozen films while releasing three albums since. Yet her portrayal of the Queen of Soul might have just earner her at least another Oscar nomination.

As her feature film directorial debut, Liesl Tommy doesn’t shy away from the cracks in Franklin’s relationships with her father, siblings, and partners. Her fear of trusting people after her childhood abuse and the beatings she suffered from her ex-husband lead to her alcoholism, which then leads to estrangement from the family that she perceives as leeching off her success.

One peculiar way that Tommy helps Franklin confront her demons, however, is the dream of seeing her mother Barbara again. It would have been easy to just show Aretha drowning in alcohol or mired in a dream sequence but by bringing the adult Aretha face-to-face with her mother who had passed when she was a child, it served as a reminder to return to her roots.

Respect ends with the recording of her live gospel album “Amazing Grace” in 1972, still the highest selling live gospel album of all time, and perhaps that is one criticism of this film. After all, Franklin lived 46 more years after that, recording and selling out concert venues into her 70s. This film shares that early conclusion with the Elton John biopic Rocketman, that ends with his comeback in the 1980s and both films just show archival pictures and footage to show the singer’s life since then.

Just as the world seems to have a fascination with the rise and fall of celebrities, we also love our comebacks after all and that gospel album marked the return of Franklin to prominence. Respect doesn’t tackle Franklin’s infamous battles with weight over the decades, perhaps because Hudson has also had weight issues in the past, but in no way does that take away one’s satisfaction when it concludes. At the end of the day, it is still the music sung by Hudson of Franklin’s original recordings that set it apart from all others.

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