When it comes to singing, folks usually find praise in technique and tone, but singing as an artform can also find greatness in authentic expression. While every genre of music has its fans, soul music has an incomparable effect to move any audience – and you can’t talk about soul music without mentioning the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin.
In Respect, Jennifer Hudson plays the diva, embodying not just the heft and talent of the Aretha most know, but also the fragility that not many are familiar with. Though this biopic is by no means accurate – because after all, how is one to condense 20 years into two and a half hours – the screenplay by Tracey Scott Wilson does highlight a few forces that have shaped the late dame into the icon that she is.
Liesl Tommy places these episodes fairly evenly, moving us through her childhood pregnancy through to her volatile relationships with her family and her lovers in her adult life. Though the title speaks to the theme of someone seeking validation and later emerging as her own, there are times that it doesn’t unpack fully.
Most of all is her early motherhood. Little is said of her relationship with her sons, and whenever she returns to her family home, it’s more about her relationship with her father. Although this does weigh in heavily to her circular return to gospel roots, a richer Aretha could have emerged if we saw her in parts as a mother.
Nonetheless, the movie does pair up her tribulations to her music, letting us flow through her evolution as a forgettable musician to soul beacon in the industry. There’s plenty of purposeful drops (such as the kids in early scenes shouting out “sock it to him!”) to illustrate her inspirations, but it is clear every new song emerges as an anthem to her most recent personal epiphany. So from the jazzy ”Nature Boy” and bluesy “I Never Loved a Man (The Way That I Love You)” to the titular “Respect”, each hit ends up like a badge of honour in a somewhat repeated formula.
It does come across that the team is more about paying homage than telling a compelling biopic story, but who can fault them when a legend is being featured – and therein might lie the issue. Thankfully, Jennifer Hudson with her equally impressive vocals are a joy to witness, and is certainly of enough calibre to suit the queen.
With 75 million records sold worldwide in her career, Aretha Franklin can count many achievements, and even though Respect does a decent job, it might not really be the hit that one is hoping for.
If one is looking for a musically sound biopic, Respect grants it to you. But a deeper study and more tangible relationships between Aretha’s loved ones would have made this a more moving tribute.