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Film review: Respect

17 September 2021

Stephen Brown reviews the new biopic about the singer Aretha Franklin

Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in Respect

Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in Respect

THE singer Aretha Franklin (1942-2018) was known as the Queen of Soul. The film Respect (Cert. 12A), named after one of many hits, will only confirm her legacy.

This is a dramatised version of the performer’s life. A previous film, Amazing Grace (Arts, 31 May 2019), chronicles the two-day recording session at New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles, of her eponymous album. This went on to become the bestselling gospel-music disc ever.

The new film is quite different. Unlike the former, we are given a lot of information about the woman herself. As a biopic about a singer, it tends to follow the well-trodden path of a troubled childhood. Aretha is brought up in awe of a controlling father, the Revd. C. L. Franklin (played by Forest Whittaker). She also has to deal with rape and other sexual abuse. All of this inevitably leaves its mark throughout adult life.

True to the genre’s form, she carries on. As a young person, Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner) is told by her mother (Audra McDonald) that singing is sacred. She belts out hot gospel songs at church like there’s no tomorrow — only heaven. Here on earth, it is often the way of the cross for her from childhood onwards. Alcohol and weight problems, symptomatic of the “demons” that she frequently contends with, remain a lifelong issue. To put it simplistically, the film attributes most of her problems to men. Whether seeing off business sharks or dealing with lounge-lizard lovers, all she craves is a little (as the title song says) respect. Her self-confidence, attributed to God’s belief in the singer, could be seen by some as delusional.

The music rather than the platitudinous dialogue carries this film and any Christian messages. Jennifer Hudson does a fine job with the Franklin back catalogue, though she is never tempted into trying to imitate Aretha’s vocalisation.

Respect, despite its length, gives us less than the full picture of Franklin’s life story. It seems to go with the territory. Lady Sings the Blues, for example, was similarly scant on details about Billie Holliday. This new film isn’t helped by relying as heavily as Tracey Scott Wilson’s screenplay does on flashbacks. The pacing is ill at ease with itself, and narrative gaps cry out to be filled. Similarly, the anachronistic emphasis on female empowerment sits oddly with the era in which the story is set. Yes, “Respect” became an anthem of the Civil Rights campaign — Aretha marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. — but the film would have us believe that she also pioneered the feminist movement.

Audiences will flock to cinemas for the songs, whoever the singer is. Learning more about Franklin’s life may conjure up feelings of either relief or disappointment that this idol was an ordinary human being like ourselves. It is a fitting tribute that the film ends with Aretha performing, illustrating the maxim that those who sing pray twice. The Queen of Soul touches the audience’s souls in bringing a transcendent climax to an exuberant, if flawed, experience.

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