- The Magazine
It seems inconceivable that Aretha Franklin recorded a whole catalog’s worth of so-so albums at Columbia Records before she arrived at the defining Atlantic Records hits that established her as the Queen of Soul.
But so goes the legend, as recounted in the gripping biopic Respect (★★★☆☆), and in NatGeo’s recent mini-series Genius: Aretha, that Miss Franklin’s music was all over the map until she zeroed in on the unmistakable, gospel-tinged soul that produced classics like “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).”
The film and miniseries cover much of the same narrative ground — too much — but the film, directed by Liesl Tommy from a script by Tracey Scott Wilson, feels more persuasive in its production and point of view.
Working with considerably less running time, though still not brief at 145 minutes, Respect picks a lane by depicting just a 20-year period of the icon’s remarkable life and lengthy career.
Franklin spent so many decades showing the world what it means to be a fabulous, fur-flinging star of a certain age, that her popular image had become far removed from the girlish singer who first took the world by storm in the late sixties. Aretha was, after all, just 25 when she recorded “Respect.” This portrayal, built around a full-bodied performance by Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson, focuses on chipping away at young Re’s devastating traumas until that assured, world-beating woman emerges.
Focused, but not narrow, the movie spreads the drama around to a cast of powerhouses, including Forest Whitaker as Rev. C.L. Franklin, architect of his daughter’s early performing career, and Audra McDonald as the Reverend’s estranged wife, Barbara, beatific mom to a 10-year old Re (Broadway standout Skye Turner) who adores her.
Broadway vets Saycon Sengbloh and Hailey Kilgore deliver nuanced backup as Aretha’s sisters Erma and Carolyn, whose vocal and songwriting contributions to some of Aretha’s classics are given adequate shine here. Reverend Franklin’s contributions seem overstated, by contrast. For sure, the rousing effects of his sermons are overplayed, with congregants catching the spirit with his every sanctified word.
Shining in a touching, more subtle role is Tituss Burgess, superb as Aretha’s lifelong mentor, Reverend Dr. James Cleveland. We don’t get to hear Re’s castigating mentor Dinah Washington sing, but as embodied by Mary J. Blige, she still brings fire.
Among this cast, only Marlon Wayans looks a tad incongruous playing Ted White, Aretha’s first husband, the industry hustler who wrests managerial control over her career from a none-too-pleased Reverend Franklin. Adventurous of late in his choices of film roles, the comedian succeeds in finding his Billy Dee register, and turns Ted into a seductive though terribly insecure match for Hudson’s vixenish songbird. Still, neither he nor Hudson disappear into their roles.
As for Hudson’s approach to the Aretha Franklin songbook, the Queen reportedly hand-picked the former Dreamgirl as the performer for the job, so we can’t argue with that. And there’s no use arguing with Hudson’s fierce tear through “Think,” or her achingly good rendition of “Ain’t No Way.”
Tommy — the first woman of color to be Tony-nominated for directing a play — stages several moving live performances, and perceptive scenes set inside the recording studio, detailing the construction of familiar hits note by note, line by line.
It’s likely thanks to the film’s executive music producer Harvey Mason, Jr. (who also co-produced Franklin and Blige’s Grammy-winning 2006 duet “Never Gonna Break My Faith”), that the songs sound like the familiar recordings, with the touch of fresh voices and talent.
And thanks to the film’s well-considered point of view, the regal soul at the heart of the songs resonates as timelessly as ever.
Respect opens Friday, August 13 in theaters everywhere. Visit http://respect.movie.
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