No surprise that Aretha Franklin would tap Jennifer Hudson to play her in Respect, the film that chronicles the Soul Queen’s life and career. Hudson didn’t win when she appeared during American Idol’s third season, but her presence and powerful voice landed her the role of Effie White for the film adaptation of the musical Dreamgirls. Her rendition of the hit song, “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” brought comparisons to the vocal debuts of Barbra Streisand and Bette Middler, and nabbed her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Hudson has the voice and acting chops to portray Franklin, but the two also shared a grounding in religious music. Both grew up in church singing “Amazing Grace,” a song that would anchor Franklin’s bestselling album and Hudson’s performance that ends the film.
Aretha grew up in Detroit where her father, Clarence LaVaughn “C.L.” Franklin (Forest Whitaker), was pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church, known for its gospel choir and for being at the center of the Civil Rights movement. Besides Martin Luther King, Jr., those who frequently gathered in the Franklin home included high profile musicians – Sam Cooke, Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson, and Dinah Washington (played in the film by Mary J. Blige). Yet a very young Franklin (an impressive performance by Skye Dakota Turner), shows no stage fright when being roused from sleep to sing before a large adult group gathered for a party in the Franklin home. “She’s 10, but her voice is goin’ on 30,” one of the guests remarks.
Aretha’s mother, Barbara (a too brief appearance by Audra MacDonald), left C.L. after his numerous affairs and returned to Buffalo, where the family had once lived. Barbara is a talented pianist and vocalist and the scene where she sits with her daughter at the piano and sings,“I’ll Be Seeing You,” is lovely, but foreshadows her death from a heart attack. Aretha goes into a tail spin. An evening during one of C.L.’s parties, a man comes into Aretha’s bedroom, tells her he wants to be her friend, and closes the door. Is the scene rooted in fact? Aretha did give birth at age 12, had another child two years later. (There was speculation about the fathers; Aretha would not discuss these pregnancies with interviewers.)
C.L. looms as a large and overbearing presence in Aretha’s life, dictating not only where she should perform, but whom she should date. In the office of John Hammond (Tate Donovan), a Columbia Records executive talking about her contract, C.L. prevents Aretha from taking part in a discussion that will determine her future. Aretha begins recording, but her songs fail to climb the charts. Turns out, making a hit record involves more than having a great voice and a recording contract. A singer needs to find a signature style and select the right songs. Breaking away from C.L., earning his wrath in the process, Aretha believes her lover, Ted White (Marlon Wayans), will take her career in the right direction. White, however, proves as abusive and controlling as C.L.
The one who will help Aretha discover her sound is also the one to trust her instincts. Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron), signs her to Atlantic Records and encourages her to leave New York and come to an Alabama studio to record with the Muscle Shoals band. Magic starts to happen. Hudson captures Franklin’s instincts as she reworks “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You)” and makes it her own. Lightning strikes again, more forcefully, when she sits down at the piano with her two sisters, Carolyn (Hailey Kilgore), and Brenda (Brenda Nicole Moorer), to put her stamp on the Otis Redding song, “Respect.” As someone comments when hearing her sing the song, “It’s hers now.”
After an altercation in a hotel lobby results in headlines that Ted is abusing her, there’s hope that she will finally kick him to the curb. That does eventually happen and when Aretha sings “Think” repeating the refrain of “Freedom,” she does seem emancipated. Yet the assassination of King, a daunting touring schedule, and failed relationships begin to take their toll. In real life, Aretha battled her weight and alcoholism. The film seems to quickly tack on her descent into addiction, including a drunken fall off a stage in Georgia, to dispatch with the down side of her career. Her resurrection comes when she gets clean and returns to the church, not only to renew her relationship with God, but to celebrate his glory with her singing. Wexler is incredulous that she wants to record an album of gospel songs and tries his best to dissuade her. But, once again, Franklin’s instincts are spot on, with the album becoming a bestseller.
Franklin’s faith in Hudson pays off with another Oscar-worthy performance. We know Hudson can sing, and that impressive talent is on full display. She brings the passion, emotion, and stage presence that lift these iconic songs into the anthems they have become for so many who find in the lyrics echoes of their own struggles and victories. It’s hard not to get goose bumps, particularly in Hudson’s fabulous delivery of “Think,” or at King’s funeral, with the heartbreaking “Take My Hand Precious Lord.”
The supporting cast is excellent, particularly Kilgore and Moorer as Aretha’s sisters. The film is as pleasing to the eyes as it is to the ears, thanks to cinematography by Kramer Morganthau, and production design by Ina Mayhew. But truly, an Oscar nomination should be in store for costume designer Clint Ramos. Not only are Aretha’s gowns fit for a queen, but even the every day outfits worn by Hudson and the supporting cast – men and women – are a tribute to the styles of the times.
Respect is Liesl Tommy’s feature film directorial debut. A South African-American, she became the first woman of color to be nominated for the Tony Award for the best direction of a play for Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed, the story of five women surviving the end of the Second Liberian Civil War. Being trusted to tell Franklin’s story certainly was a huge responsibility and Tommy has pulled it off. The film isn’t perfect. At two hours and 25 minutes, several scenes were superfluous and could have been cut. But Tommy manages to bring together the various facets of Aretha’s life with a cast and crew energized to do the story justice.
Note: please stay for the credits to see Aretha herself during the 2004 Kennedy Center Honors when she sings “A Natural Woman,” with the song’s creator, Carole King, one of the award recipients, along with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, sitting in the balcony, enjoying the performance
Respect opens in theaters on August 13, 2021.
Top: Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin in “Respect”
A Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film
Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert