Let’s just get this out of the way now: Respect star Jennifer Hudson does not sound like Aretha Franklin. They’re unique artists and their voices are notably different. That sentiment means no disrespect to Hudson. Franklin is the Queen of Soul, and her voice is a singular force. Hudson, however, understands Franklin’s stature and she doesn’t try to replicate Franklin’s voice. Her renditions of Franklin’s songs are distinctly Jennifer Hudson songs. She can really belt out a tune and her vocalizations have a cadence that reflects the era of American Idol. But Hudson’s voice, like Franklin’s, is one to be reckoned with as a true force.
As Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige) tells Franklin during a brash encounter, “Don’t ever sing the Queen in the Queen’s presence.” That advice envelops Hudson’s performance as the late soul icon. Hudson, handpicked for the role by Franklin herself, knows that the singer watches over her. Her performance stays true to the dramatic spirit of Franklin’s life, work, and music, but also true to her own identity as an artist. It’s a tricky balancing act, but it works.
The pleasure of Respect, actually, is not so much Franklin’s story as it is the power of Hudson’s performance. Respect modifies the same Shake ‘n’ Bake recipe as musical biopics like Ray, Judy, and Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s conventional filmmaking and biopic formula, but that’s likely only to bother audiences who’ve seen so many similar portraits of musical icons. Sticking to the formula, moreover, Respect has some performances that make the experience worthwhile.
Respect inevitably begins right at Franklin’s childhood, but with a purpose. Played by a captivating Skye Dakota Turner, Franklin’s ten-year-old self is a musical prodigy. Her daddy, a minister (Forest Whitaker), constantly trucks her out at parties to entertain his friends. Aretha, at an early age, loves to sing, but the film underscores the pervasive influence of the spotlight before Franklin achieved celebrity status. The booze-fuelled Saturday parties brought the young Franklin into close contact with all sorts of characters, including a family friend who raped her. The act nearly robbed Franklin of her voice.
This traumatic childhood weaves throughout Respect as Aretha struggles with the bottle in her 20s. She and her family call it “her demons” and alcoholism plagues Franklin’s early career. Her childhood also leaves memories of her late mother (Audra McDonald), whose grace inspires Franklin to cling to a false image of her family. Franklin surrounds herself with toxic men, namely her father and her husband, Ted White (Marlon Wayans). Both men vie to be Franklin’s manager and control her career with such violence that one could easily confuse Respect for a film about Ike and Tina Turner.
The Soul of Muscle Shoals
Respect hits its stride when White introduces Franklin to producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron). The producer sees Franklin’s potential after she released several albums covering classical numbers. The early songs are lovely but don’t fully harness the power of her voice. Wexler books Franklin at a little studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Far from the prestige of New York, but infused with the soul of the South, the all-white band at Fame Studios surprises Franklin and enrages White, who clashes with the band and producer Rick Hall (Myk Watford). Franklin only spends one day at Fame, but it counts.
Respect sees the performer come into her own as Franklin does what her husband and managers can’t. She understands her voice—its essence, its cadence, and its soul. She commands the band when Ted simply wants to pick fights along racial lines. Instead, Franklin inspires the band to put some swagger in their tunes.
Musical biopics often lend themselves to groan-worthy cheese whenever they portray artists finding the inspiration for their songs. Respect, however, finally clicks as Franklin finds her groove while recording “I Never Loved a Man.” Director Liesl Tommy, in her feature debut, relaxes the pace and tempo of Respect as the power of Muscle Shoals enters Franklin. Aretha commands the room and creates harmony with organist Spooner Oldman as they discover the tune. The best moments of Respect might simply be these two artists riffing in the studio. It’s also a powerful scene for the film to emphasize as Franklin spends the film’s first act insisting on singing “hits” without owning the uniqueness of her voice. She emerges from Muscle Shoals stronger and fully realized as an artist. (As an aside, anyone intrigued by this chapter of Respect needs to see the documentary Muscle Shoals.)
The film chronicles Franklin’s ensuing rise to fame as it follows her on whirlwind tours of concerts and hangovers. All the hits are there, including an inevitable show-stopping number of “Respect” that accentuates Franklin’s role as an activist. As the film goes through the hits of the 1960s, and the highs and lows of Franklin’s career, she eventually emerges from her father’s shadow. Unfortunately, she looks and acts exactly like him.
But this is where Respect redeems itself for earlier treading in biopic formula. Writers Tracey Scott Wilson and Callie Khouri don’t give Franklin the cradle-to-grave treatment or obligatory rehab scenes. Instead, Respect culminates with the recording of Amazing Grace, Franklin’s long-wished-for gospel album. Like the midpoint with Muscle Shoals, the creation of Amazing Grace draws upon the pain of Franklin’s childhood. She releases it through song, belting out some holy-moly catharsis in what would become her greatest album. Ironically, my complaint with the long-shelved documentary Amazing Grace is that it lacks context. Respect puts all the sweat and tears of this concert doc in the right place. Respect might not serve so much as a great film, but as a great coagulant for all the docs chronicling Franklin’s career.
If Respect has a major misstep, it comes in the choice with which many biopics end: footage of the real life subject. Respect’s closing credits feature Franklin’s powerful performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the 2015 Kennedy Centre Honours for Carole King. Even at 73, Franklin’s voice was a force of nature.
It’s somewhat unfair to Hudson, who bravely covers all the songs in the film, to end with Franklin’s voice. Biopics of this variety inevitably inspire comparison between the artist’s interpretation and the real deal. Compare the ending of Respect to the finale of Judy in which Renée Zellweger closes the film. Garland says to the audience, “You won’t forget me. Promise me you won’t.” Zellweger’s voice cracks in the film’s final line as she, like Garland, puts everything on the line for a comeback. It leaves a viewer inspired by both Garland and Zellweger as performers. Respect’s credits might simply further ire fans who can spot the difference between Hudson and Franklin. But if you want Aretha, just listen to her albums or watch Amazing Grace.
Like the final voice crack of Judy, the authority of Respect lies in Hudson’s voice. While Hudson doesn’t quite replicate Franklin—and, frankly, who could?—she honours her by conveying the power of her voice. Hudson infuses every musical number of Respect with a fully committed performance. The dramatic inflections in her interpretation of Franklin’s story and music are remarkable. Each song is a showstopper thanks to Hudson’s ability to emote and lose herself in the character. It’s extraordinary to see how much Hudson’s grown as an actor, which says a lot considering that she won a well-deserved Oscar for her film debut.