“Respect” is a thoroughly conventional musician biopic whose glaring flaws are occasionally compensated by the strong performance from its lead actress. Whenever the movie lets us down during its rather long running time (145 minutes), she always lifts it up via her undeniable presence and talent, and she certainly handles her real-life character with care, passion, and, yes, lots of respect, even though her commendable acting is often hampered by those many weak aspects of the movie.
That real-life character in question is none other than Aretha Franklin, a legendary African American singer whose reputation and legacy have still been growing even after her death in 2018. I must confess that I did not know a lot about her before hearing about her death and then watching Sidney Pollack’s exceptional music documentary film “Amazing Grace” (2018), but I still vividly remember when I was blown away by her scene-stealing musical scene in John Landis’ “The Blues Brothers” (1980) many years ago, and many of her songs appearing in “Respect” surely remind me again of how much I have been familiar with them without knowing her life and career that much.
Unfortunately, the movie does not tell me more about Franklin’s life and career as duly doling out one genre cliché after another. While it does not disappoint me in case of its several good musical moments, the movie often suffers from scattershot narrative and thin characterization as covering too much of the 20 years of Franklin’s life, and we are only left with the vague impression of her artistic greatness without getting to know her that much.
Anyway, there are some parts which do work as well as intended, and one of them is the early part showing the childhood years of Franklin in Detroit, Michigan during the 1950s. Even when she was only 10 years old, young Franklin, who is played with considerable pluck and confidence by young performer Skye Dakota Turner, showed considerable potential as a singer, and both of her parents are certainly willing to encourage her more. As an influential local pastor connected with many different famous African American figures ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. to Dinah Washington, her father C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker) was already ready to prepare her for professional musician career, and her mother Barbara (Audra McDonald) welcomed that because she had worked as a professional singer for years, though she did not see her daughter that often after her divorce.
After showing two incidents which broke young Franklin’s heart a lot, the movie soon moves onto the 1960s. Now becoming a young lady singer, Franklin, who is played by Jennifer Hudson from this point, is eager to go for professional success, and her father is certainly determined to support her as much as he can, but she soon finds herself not so happy with her father’s management of her career. Although he helps her get a contract with Columbia Records in New York City, her career still goes nowhere despite releasing several albums, and she naturally comes to feel more need to go her own way and then find her own voice to distinguish herself.
And then there comes a seemingly good opportunity for that via Ted White (Marlon Wayans, who looks as serious as when he appeared in Darren Aronofsky’s great film “Requiem for a Dream” (2000)), a handsome dude Franklin came across in Detroit several years ago. Although White is not exactly trustworthy, Franklin decides to take a chance with White despite the warning from her father, and things soon get much better for her career once he helps her getting a new contract with Atlantic Records. Once she releases her first hit song, everything goes quite well for her within a few years, and she is soon regarded as a new rising talent to watch in her field.
Of course, like many of musician biopics out there, the movie later throws lots of small and big troubles into the story, and that is where the screenplay by Tracey Scott Wilson, which is based on the story by Wilson and her co-writer Callie Khouri, begins to stumble. Too frequently going up and down along with its heroine, the story feels rather uneven and contrived without bringing enough depth to its heroine, and a bunch of supporting characters around her are more or less than flat plot elements to accompany her. At least, Forest Whitaker and Audra McDonald manage to overcome their thankless roles to some degree, and Whittaker is particularly good in conveying to us his character’s complex emotional relationship with Franklin.
Anyway, Hudson, who finally gets a chance to fully utilize her natural talent and charisma after many years since her show-stopping Oscar-winning turn in “Dreamgirls” (2006), is utterly committed to say the least, and she did an admirable job of channeling Franklin’s personality and talent. In case of the expected redemptive finale associated with the making of “Amazing Grace” in 1972, Hudson is quite captivating in her intense presentation of spiritual elevation, and I did not sense much awkwardness or disparity when I subsequently saw the epilogue video clip showing real Franklin performing in front of hundreds of audiences including President Barack Obama.
Directed by Liesl Tommy, “Respect” is not a total failure at least mainly thanks to Hudson’s sincere and diligent efforts, but it does not have enough life and personality compared to those acclaimed musician biopic films such as Taylor Hackford’s “Ray” (2004) or James Mangold’s “Walk the Line” (2005). Somewhere in the film, there is a more effective story which would serve Hudson better, and I wish I could watch it instead.