Respect brings the musical entertainment you’d expect, yet Aretha Franklin’s story seems half-baked. When the music isn’t blaring, it’s a sluggish look at Aretha Franklin’s life, but carried by strong performances. Respect still shines a good light on Ms. Franklin’s impact, her struggles, and how she overcame them to be this larger-than-life icon of soul music. It’s too long, but the powerhouse performances will keep you glued as Ms. Franklin’s story is told through Jennifer Hudson’s great performance.
Formulaic and standard are the best words to describe Respect since biopics on singers and music groups are happening more frequently. The difference is this time it’s Aretha Franklin’s story being told. Respect feels like it’s holding back at times, in regards to the trauma in Ms. Franklin’s life. Fans of the late musician should still find something to appreciate here. Directed by Liesl Tommy and written by Tracey Scott Wilson, the film stars Forest Whitaker, Marc Maron, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Hailey Kilgore, and Jennifer Hudson. Respect follows Aretha Franklin (Hudson), a preacher’s daughter who endures abuse but grows up to become the Queen of Soul along the way.
Set mostly in the 1960s, Respect depicts several crucial events from Ms. Franklin’s childhood to early adulthood. The film begins with C.L. Franklin (Whitaker), Aretha’s father, telling his daughter to come and sing downstairs for one of his late-night parties. From there, Respect taps into her journey as a singer and the hardships she faced. The abusive torment Ms. Franklin endured from her father and future husband, Ted White (Wayans), creates sympathy for the audience to get behind the soon-to-be Queen of Soul. However, between her early pregnancy as a child, racism, and her abuse from two other men, Respect never spends enough time with all of this trauma. It’s holding back on Ms. Franklin’s demons but fully embraces her accomplishments. Towards the end of the film, a drinking habit becomes a coping tactic for Ms. Franklin. One of the darker sequences in the film, so her trauma could have been told better to justify her drinking problem.
Wilson’s screenplay is at its best when it focuses on Ms. Franklin’s musical progression, studio time, and her eventual on-stage performances. These scenes are enhanced by every performer on screen. Hudson shines as Aretha Franklin, bringing her spin to the Queen of Soul. When she uses her voice, it will draw you in for the entire performance. Whitaker impresses as her troubled father that wants the best for his daughter, and Wayans is on another level here as Ted White. His abusive behavior is portrayed so well, it only makes Ms. Franklin’s eventual separation from him that much better. Hudson and Wayans’s toxic relationship was done to perfection thanks to their gripping performances.
Respect suffers mostly because of its pacing, the performances save it in the end. Ms. Franklin’s life was a journey indeed, but this was too long and time could have been spent elsewhere to make the narrative better. The film’s runtime is enough to dive into the demons referenced, yet there is a half-baked effort at highlighting the Queen of Soul’s struggles. Most of the film sees her navigating through the music industry in search of multiple hits, as she called them. Emotional sequences fall flat as well because of this sluggish pacing, such as Martin Luther King’s death not being that impactful. Pacing aside, gathering a roster of talented actors was enough to keep Respect engaging.
Respect is a solid attempt at telling the life story of Aretha Franklin, it just could have dug deeper. Held back by its PG-13 rating, the film never can fully tap into the darker aspects of Aretha Franklin’s life. Hudson’s performance will keep you engaged, and musically, fans will get enough out of this biopic. If there’s a glass half-filled feeling after, that’s because Respect is similar to that in terms of the overall execution.