hosting the 78th Academy Awards in 2006, Jon Stewart quipped that the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line was simply “Ray with white people”. The gag landed not so much because of its racial politics (il #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was still a decade away) but because it skewered a film-cliche truth – that no matter how different their individual stories may seem, the key beats of most rock and pop biopics are strikingly similar. Infatti, the two primary challenges for any movie in this genre are: to cast actors who can embody their subjects’ star power on screen, and to find ways to make old movie tropes seem new. A questo proposito, Respect – a biopic of queen of soul Aretha Franklin, with a barnstorming central turn from Jennifer Hudson – hits one of its two targets.
Tracing an arc from Franklin’s church-house childhood in 1950s Detroit, through the personal turmoils and civil rights struggles that came to a head in the 60s (she was a friend and supporter of Dr King and sang at his memorial service), to the triumphant recording of a bestselling gospel album in the early 70s, Respect treads a well-worn and somewhat sanitised path.
Early scenes establish the conflicting influence on the young Aretha (the precociously talented Skye Dakota Turner) of her charismatic preacher father CL Franklin, played with a powerful mix of paternal pride and selfish opportunism by Forest Whitaker. Bringing out his daughter to perform at parties and sermons alike, this holy roller seems to view his child’s God-given gifts as his to do with as he will. No wonder Aretha, who is preyed upon by one of her dad’s party guests, falls silent following the death of her mother (Audra McDonald), who warned her daughter: “Your daddy doesn’t own your voice – nobody does but God.”
Marriage to Ted White (Marlon Wayans, oozing snaky charm) sees Aretha jumping from the frying pan into the fire (“Ted is nothing like daddy,” she insists), although the spectre of domestic abuse remains altogether more discreet than in the 1993 Tina Turner biopic, What’s Love Got to Do With It. But it’s Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron, dispelling the stench of last year’s Bowie-inspired abomination Stardust) who helps her strike gold, pairing Aretha with the white Muscle Shoals musicians who paradoxically open the doors to soul super-stardom.
Like the moment in The Buddy Holly Story when the refrain “If you knew Cindy Lou…” clumsily sets the scene for a future hit, Respect features several creaky instances that attempt to bottle the lightning of Franklin’s most celebrated performances – not least when her backing-singer sisters use her jokingly repeated nickname (‘Ree-Ree-Ree’) to rejig the hook of the title song.
Such interludes litter Tracey Scott Wilson’s reverential script (on which Thelma and Louise writer Callie Khourie initially worked), adding to the staginess of a long-gestating project that was once envisaged as a theatre musical, and which has finally been brought to the screen by acclaimed Broadway director Liesl Tommy, making her feature debut.
Despite top-notch period production design and a couple of convincing studio workout sequences (I was reminded of the brilliant Love & Mercy as Aretha tells her bassist to ditch Alabama for Harlem), the drama rarely has the fiery spark its subject demands. Lee Daniels’s The United States vs Billie Holiday, with which this movie shares its cocktail of political battles and personal strife, was a chaotically unruly affair; Respect is perhaps too well behaved to do justice to this story.
Yet just as Andra Day elevated Daniels’s muddled film above its structural flaws, so Hudson still manages to make Respect sing. Having been personally approved by Franklin (who died nel 2018) to portray her on screen, il Dreamgirls star does most of the heavy lifting, particularly as the musical set pieces stack up, restaging classic performances to crowd-pleasing effect.
Few performers would dare take a swing at Franklin’s classic 1972 performance at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in LA, seen recently in the resurrected documentary Amazing Grace. That Hudson should swing and score is a tribute both to her talent, and to Franklin’s notoriously controlling casting instincts.