(Elizabeth Weitzman’s article appeared in the Wrap 8/8. Photo: Quantrell D. Colbert/MGM.)
It’s more effective as a jukebox musical than a character piece, but the central performance and those amazing songs pull it all
It has not been an easy year for theater lovers, who have mostly made do with well-filmed performances of shows like “Hamilton” and “David Byrne’s American Utopia.”
In contrast to those projects, Liesl Tommy’s Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect” was created as an original film, but it works best when envisioned as a Broadway-style jukebox musical.
Tommy and writer Tracey Scott Wilson are making their cinematic debuts with this sturdy retelling of Franklin’s early life and career. However, they come to the project with impressive stage backgrounds, which inform every aspect of their approach. Any stage, of course, needs a star who can command the space. That the story intermittently recedes into the background might be problematic, were it not for the fact that the spotlight remains resolutely focused on a captivating Jennifer Hudson, who was chosen for the role by Franklin herself, before she passed away in 2018.
“Respect” actually begins with a 9-year-old Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner) just starting to understand her own gifts. Re, as she’s called, lives with her father (Forest Whitaker), the celebrated minister and civil rights activist C.L. Franklin. Life is busy — Re is often enlisted to sing at his Saturday night parties and Sunday services — but troubling.
Wilson and Tommy make delicate but undeniable reference to a childhood rape, which is soon followed by the death of Re’s mostly absent mother (Audra McDonald, underused). This is where her “demons” take hold, and soon the script skips ahead to the years when Aretha (now played by Hudson) begins pushing back against her controlling father and her husband, Ted (Marlon Wayans). Hudson, an Oscar winner for “Dreamgirls,” calibrates her performance with a lovely subtlety, so there are scenes when Re realistically embodies a shy church singer, rebellious young woman and confident musician all within minutes.
Realism, though, is not the filmmakers’ artistic priority. There’s a notable theatricality to most of the movie’s elements, beginning with a script that takes us from Big Moment to Big Moment. If Ted is holding a bottle of liquor, we know he’s about to get mean. When the phone rings, bad news will almost certainly follow. If Aretha stops to talk to someone at a party, it’s likely to be Smokey Robinson (Lodric D. Collins), who will say, “We are trying to put Detroit on the map. You gotta be a part of it!”