Review: Aretha biopic earns 'Respect,' honors Queen of Soul's rise

'Respect' does right by the Queen of Soul, hitting the high points in her rise to superstardom.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Respect is due to Aretha Franklin, and it is given in "Respect," the classy, reverent biopic that traces Aretha Franklin's rise from the daughter of a Detroit preacher to the internationally renowned Queen of Soul. 

It follows Franklin's formative years, from about age 10 to 30, as she learns to find her voice in the world. She endures artistic struggles, an abusive relationship and a system that sought to keep women — especially Black women — in the place that was deemed appropriate for them. Aretha fought through it all, and while "Respect" dutifully honors her journey and roots her on, it's never quite able to achieve the same fighting, fiery spirit as Ms. Franklin so fully embodied. 

Marc Maron, Marlon Wayans and Jennifer Hudson in "Respect."

Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson plays Franklin, a role she was hand-picked for by Aretha before her death in 2018. Hudson does Franklin's vocals justice, in a role that requires plenty of singing; Hudson recreates a number of Franklin's songs, from "Respect" to "Ain't No Way" (a highlight) to "Chain of Fools," and the lack of overdubs is important in a role where authenticity is paramount.

As Franklin, Hudson burrows into the vulnerability of the singer, and later the strength that allows her to become a force of nature. The voice was always there, even at an early age when she would sing at her father's swinging house parties, thrust into an adult world well before her time. (Franklin's early pregnancy at age 12 is addressed here, although the particulars are danced around.) 

More: In Detroit, Jennifer Hudson says Aretha Franklin 'was part of my life'

More: Jennifer Hudson pays 'Respect' to Detroit during Charles H. Wright visit

The script by Tracey Scott Wilson focuses on Franklin's struggles and her overcoming of them, and while it's set up as a superhero's origin story of sorts, it doesn't allow Hudson to fully inhabit the brassy, vigorous, funny, spirited figure Aretha became. It's so busy hitting the marks and recreating the important moments of her life that it doesn't stop to breathe and let Hudson live in Aretha's skin.   

As her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, Forrest Whitaker is a stern figure, but the complicated dynamics of his relationship with his daughter aren't as thoroughly explored as they were in this year's "Genius: Aretha," one of the few advantages Nat Geo's 8-part series on Franklin has over "Respect."

In that series, which ran earlier this year, Courtney B. Vance had more room to stretch out and color in his character, as well as flesh out the up-and-down dynamics that made he and Aretha's relationship so complex. Whitaker — playing Hudson's father for the third time on screen — is more one-dimensional here, a function of limited screen time and a story that has a lot to cram into a two and-a-half hour running time more than it is a reflection on his performance. 

Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige as Dinah Washington in "Respect."

Director Liesl Tommy, in her feature film debut, delivers a slick film that hits the key points in Franklin's ascent — the studio sessions, the record company dealings, the first time she hears her song being played in public — and moves at an expedient pace. "Respect" never drags and has a steady momentum that keeps it moving forward. 

As her first husband Ted White, Marlon Wayans is confined to villain tactics, and he often feels like he's putting on serious voice. Marc Maron has a little more to play with — and winds up having a lot more fun — as music producer Jerry Wexler, who's both in awe of Franklin's talent and afraid of incurring her wrath. 

Bit roles are filled in by Mary J. Blige, who has an electrifying scene as Dinah Washington, and Audra McDonald — once in the running to play Aretha — as Franklin's mother, whose death at an early age is a formative event in Franklin's life. 

It all builds to her legendary performance at Los Angeles' New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, where Franklin recorded her "Amazing Grace" album over two nights in early 1972, which allows the film to be bookended by scenes in church. It's an appropriate stopping point in tracing Franklin's rise, a career triumph that saw her royalty achieved, and Hudson — whose performance feels more natural as the film goes on — is never better than she is in the film's home stretch. 

Yet it's telling that when the real Aretha Franklin shows up, singing "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors over the film's closing credits, it's not only refreshing, it's a relief. Here is Franklin at age 73, a life lived and in all her regal glory, effortlessly bringing down the house in a room full of luminaries. Not only do you see her perform, you see the way others react to her, and how Carole King (whom Franklin was honoring that night) and the Obamas are so taken with her presence, her power, her gift.

"Respect" is never less than in awe of Franklin and what she's given to the world. But seeing the Queen herself perform is the one time that she, and "Respect," truly feels alive.

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Respect'

GRADE: B

Rated PG-13: for mature thematic content, strong language including racial epithets, violence, suggestive material, and smoking

Running time: 145 minutes

In theaters Friday