The Reel Review

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Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls) stars in this biopic about the late Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. It traces her evolution from her traumatic childhood as the preteen mother/singing prodigy daughter of a controlling, philandering Detroit Baptist preacher to a global superstar.

Jennifer Hudson and Mary J. Blige in Respect.

It is easy to see why Franklin, prior to her death in 2018 from pancreatic cancer, handpicked Hudson to play her in this film. Hudson is phenomenal, channeling not only Franklin’s many varied vocal stylings over the years, but her evolving looks and even her hushed speaking voice. The production’s meticulous attention to detail is impressive. Respect is at its rafter-rattling best both when Hudson is belting out the iconic hit songs and during her fascinating collaborative sessions with her band and her backup singing sisters when they created these songs. Witnessing the evolution of those hits is absolute magic.

Jennifer Hudson in Respect.

The ensemble cast is a line up of singing powerhouses, with Audra McDonald (Beauty and the Beast) as Aretha’s mother, and Mary J. Blige and Gilbert Glenn Brown as famous family friends Dinah Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr. Saycon Sengbloh and Hailey Kilgore get their moment to shine in nicely-fleshed out roles as Aretha’s two sisters, Erma and Carolyn.  Oscar winner Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) and Marlon Wayans (White Chicks) portray Aretha’s controlling father and her abusive first husband, Ted White. The film is vastly superior to National Geographic’s March 2021 Genius: Aretha miniseries that starred Cynthia Erivo.

Hailey Kilgore, Jennifer Hudson and Saycon Sengbloh in Respect.

Where Respect falls a bit short is in its story, which often feels like a melodramatic, cliché-filled afterthought shoehorned in around the songs, sacrificing factual accuracy in the process. Another odd choice – the bloated, two and a half hour story abruptly ends in 1972. (She wasn’t done yet!) Some of the awkward, uncomfortable truths of Franklin’s life (her mother’s death, her having her first child at 12 and husband Ted’s true awfulness) are too briefly glossed over, although the film does accurately lean into the resulting emotional trauma that haunted Franklin throughout much of her earlier life. Respect is, first and foremost, smartly intended as a crowd pleasing tribute to Franklin and for her fans, and to that effect, it is a feel good success.

REEL FACTS

• The documentary film of Aretha Franklin’s best selling album of all time, her 1972 gospel album Amazing Grace, was released in 2018, three months after her death. Above is a ten minute excerpt.

Respect marks the third time Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker have played daughter/father in a film, after 2008’s Winged Creatures and 2013’s Black Nativity. Both won Oscars in 2007 – Hudson for Dreamgirls and Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland. 

• All of the singing in Respect, which was filmed in Atlanta, was done live – no lip synching.

 

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