Following the rise of Aretha Franklin’s career from a child singing in her father’s church’s choir to her international superstardom, RESPECT is the remarkable true story of the music icon’s journey to find her voice.
The legendary artist, Aretha Franklin, had a plethora of achievements to be proud of on her resume, all ranging from being an American singer, songwriter, pianist, civil rights activist, record producer, and so much more. However, while that’s what most audiences are aware of, many aren’t familiar with the past tragedies that she had to go through in her personal life. That’s what this film attempts to explore during its duration. The keyword here is attempts. The problem is even in a two hour and thirty-minute film, it’s difficult to fit all of that into a compelling story, but director Liesl Tommy (Jessica Jones) did the best she could. While the roles of each character were fulfilled to their highest degree, and seeing hit songs like Respect come together, the film isn’t a for sure homerun that many fans may have been longing for about this outstanding icon.
Early in the film what’s great is the amount of detail focused on Aretha’s younger years as a child. Instead of just highlighting the fact that she could sing well, and was passionate about it, we get to see her whole support system (or lack thereof) from her family and ongoing church members. In some cases, it appeared like the perfect family dynamic where love is everywhere but it becomes apparent that that’s not the case. Without going into long expositions of storytelling the director decided to show the audience what’s happening. Aretha’s past is dark, to say the least. She went through horrific hardships that one should never have to encounter. While children being conceived against a woman’s will is repulsive and extremely uncomfortable to watch, the way the director depicted these incidents was done quite well without it being over the top or graphic. This first act of the film did great justice in helping the audience understand the foundation on which Aretha grew up.
Another triumph of the film was just seeing Aretha during her happiest moments making music. It wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows when she was in the recording studio, but the film did a great job of showing how much she grew as a person over the years and that came out during her rehearsals. In the beginning, she was very timid letting others speak for her, whereas towards the end she was the most vocal in the room. Whether she was right or wrong making a career move, you could clearly see that she was growing into herself.
The film also doesn’t just focus on Aretha, but additionally those within her family and other love interests she’s had. The performances across the board were outstanding. The best from Jennifer Hudson didn’t even come from speaking dialogue. It came from when she was quiet and letting her facial expressions do the talking for her as she dealt with her internal demons. It was painful to see her struggle so much while trying to hide it from her peers, and Hudson brought that to life onscreen. Also, it can be forgiven if you forgot how much of a talent Marlon Wayans is before seeing him fill the role of Aretha’s late husband Ted White, especially with him performing in mostly comedic and spoof roles, but he held his own here too. The accent he chose still raises a question mark on authenticity, but he did an outstanding job making you fall in love with his character early on in the film but then making you despise him later with his abuse. The crown however goes to Forest Whitaker as Aretha’s father, C.L. Franklin. The film made it very clear that he wanted to protect his daughter at all cost, or maybe he was just extremely territorial over his offspring in overbearing ways. He was scary onscreen at times, which in context could be a good thing. He most likely will be the most remembered in this film. Jennifer and Forest have great chemistry on screen and with these two playing father and daughter for the third time in a film, it shows they know how to work together.
As stated earlier, Aretha Franklin had a long, prosperous career, and it can be difficult to compact all of her life story into one feature film. Unfortunately, that’s where the film suffers. While it felt long, I still wish the film was longer. It was very obvious that the filmmakers left a ton of valuable information on the cutting room floor. That could’ve been due to trying to keep the runtime shorter, or just wanting to keep the MPAA rating at PG-13. But it is clear that the film only scratched the surface on all the details of Aretha’s past good or bad. You would have to do your own research, not just to know more, but to explore different avenues I feel the film was too afraid to address. Some of the story elements between the characters did seem extremely vague as well. It wasn’t clear why Aretha’s mother left or who was the father of all of Aretha’s children, but enough is there to speculate. I don’t want to speculate though, I want to know. However, it’s still a great film that many will enjoy whether you’re a diehard fan of this past legend or not. RIP Aretha!