‘Respect’ Movie Review: Walk Hard Over Aretha Franklin’s Legacy
Even if there had been no Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, the one-two punch of Ray and Walk the Line would have been enough to expose the musician biopic formula. Dewey Cox just gave us a common language to discuss these movies. In a post-Walk Hard world, Respect doesn’t stand a chance. Respect is full of information about Aretha Franklin, but despite the music there’s just no energy.
The Aretha Franklin story in ‘Respect’
Respect covers 20 years of Aretha’s (Jennifer Hudson)’s life and career. In Detroit in 1952, Ree (Skye Dakota Turner) lives with her father Clarence (Forest Whitaker). Clarence is a preacher for whom Ree sings in church, and it is during a church performance that Turner transitions into Hudson for the rest of the movie.
Aretha begins with jazz and releases four albums by 1963. By 1968 her alcoholism interferes with her recording. They call it The Demon. After nine albums, Columbia drops Aretha so she signs with Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron) to start recording original music. She records at Muscle Shoals in Alabama, and the film follows her career until the Amazing Grace gospel album in 1972.
Aretha Franklin’s music isn’t enough to save ‘Respect’
There is a lot of singing in Respect. The Franklins were a musical family so there is singing in their home life, not only the recording studio and concerts. Concert scenes look like bad cell phone videos uploaded to YouTube. The film cuts between closeup and wide shots, but the rote montage and dim lighting are in conflict with the actual energy of Hudson’s performance.
The recording sessions at Muscle Shoals show a bit of the process by which Franklin avoided cliches and traditions to develop her own sound. It also posits that she and her band came up with everything the first time they met, but that’s compressed movie time for you. There is a valid point in the scene about the egos of musicians and executives all at odds, dilly dallying during studio time. It takes grace and skill to navigate them all to make art.
When she’s spitballing her music privately, Aretha sings into a wooden spoon. She must not’ve had a hairbrush available. Her recording of “Respect” was actually adapted from an Otis Redding song and the film portrays a similar process to Muscle Shoals, as Aretha develops her version of the song.
An uneven drama
The Demon of alcoholism isn’t at the forefront of Respect, so in that regard it avoids one of the cliches of Walk the Line/Ray type movies. However, it feels like it lacks weight when the film bothers to bring it up. Oh, suddenly she’s late to a recording session. That’s because she was drinking. Oh, now she’s overextended so she uses it to cope.
The Franklin family is volatile. Clarence yells and screams and even pulls a gun at one point. He also chastises his daughter for getting pregnant, conveniently never addressing the rape that we saw led to some of those pregnancies. Late in the movie, Aretha’s sisters remind her that they used to sing to drown out their parents fighting. Yes, people can block out bad memories for years, but in a movie that’s kind of important information to drop in act 3. Maybe show that earlier?
Aretha’s manager husband Ted (Marlon Wayans) becomes abusive, then she’s remarried with a son in a new house. Her team is canceling show dates ahead of time to avoid no shows because Franklin is overbooked and tired. That sounds like a lot but you should show, don’t tell.
Respect only hints at Franklin’s work with the Civil Rights Movement. She meets Martin Luther King (Gilbert Glenn Brown) before she begins recording. Later, she misses interviews to attend Civil Rights events, but we don’t see those events. We do see her sing at King’s funeral. That might have been a more interesting movie.
Respect ends at her 1972 gospel album, making no mention of the feature film documentary that was released of that performance defcades later. Text recaps the rest of her career but one doesn’t feel we’re missing out on seeing any more of Franklin’s life portrayed in this fashion.