Respect Review

PLOT: The early life and career of legendary singer Aretha Franklin is explored in this musical biography.

REVIEW: Aretha Franklin is legendary. Even as a young singer, she knew how to find ferocity and passion in the lyrics she sang. And her music, with such hits as “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” “Chain of Fools,” and the iconic powerhouse single “Respect,” is celebrated throughout the world. And now, filmmaker Liesl Tommy brings her real-life struggles and successes to the cinema with a biopic release. Starring Jennifer Hudson as the icon, Respect explores her early years, up until the recording of the spirit-lifting 1972 masterpiece release, “Amazing Grace” – a live album focusing on her gospel upbringing. The feature also stars Forest Whitaker as her father, C.L. Franklin, Audra McDonald as Barbara Franklin, Saycon Sengbloh as Erma Franklin, Marc Maron as Jerry Wexler, and Tituss Burgess as Reverend Dr. James Cleveland. The real question is, does this new feature show Ms. Franklin the respect she deserves?

We first meet Aretha as a child, played in the film by Skye Dakota Turner. And yes, this young lady can sing. She grew up in a family that felt the emotional abuse of a divorce and a father that pushed his children much too hard. Even more painful, she found heartbreak after the death of her mother (McDonald). We then follow Aretha into her adult years and her relationship with the abusive and jealous Ted White (played by Marlon Wayans) and onto her relations with family, music producer Jerry Wexler, and her battles with alcohol addiction. Along the way, of course, Aretha Franklin became one of the most successful female artists in music with numerous awards and the very first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For such an incredible life, you’d hope that her story would be live up to her legacy.

Growing up, I’d always admired the music of this artist. Yet as a movie fan, it was my first introduction to the “Queen of Soul” that started me off in the right direction. The first time I discovered her was when I caught an early glimpse of her was in the classic John Landis comedy, The Blues Brothers. If you’ve not experienced this fantastic action-comedy, I could not recommend it enough. And while you must credit both John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd, Aretha commands the screen in a show-stopping performance of her infectious hit single “Think.” And frankly, my favorite moment in the new film is footage of her performing at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. back in 2016. If you’ve ever wondered why she was such a powerful voice in music, all you need to watch is her live performances, and it’s beyond clear.

Jennifer Hudson already shined in the popular big-screen musical Dreamgirls. This time, however, she is center stage portraying Aretha. Her performance here is quite impressive as we get a glimpse of how this young woman fought back against the men who tried to control her. Hudson brings these classic tunes to life. Already an impressive vocalist, she ably finds the heart that made all these tunes resonate with audiences, even to this day. She also manages to give Franklin the vulnerability that is necessary for the role. It’s a solid performance. If only the script had a little more focus on the story that it tells. The film spends much of its runtime on her childhood while overlooking a few aspects of her career.

The script doesn’t fully bring this musical journey to life. Even still, for fans of her music, this is worth a watch. Two of the most impressive sequences focus on the music. One takes place in a music studio session recording of “Respect.” The other is the final sequence that delves into the recording of “Amazing Grace.” It is here in the music where this movie shines the brightest. In addition, a few of the supporting characters stand out, including Mary J. Blige in a firey cameo as another legend, Ms. Dinah Washington. In one moment featuring Washington attacking Franklin for performing one of her songs, the two light up the scene like a firecracker. Sure the writing treads on a MOV emotionality, but both Hudson and Blige give it enough heat to make it work.

Respect is a decent musical biography. Hudson is well cast as Aretha Franklin. And when she sings, this feature is nearly impossible to resist. Perhaps they tried to encompass too much into this already long feature. The film runs just under 2 1/2 hours, and there are a few moments that it drags. Partly, this is because they attempt to examine as many aspects of Franklin’s life. Yet if only they placed a bit more focus and kept the music as the heart of the story, this would’ve been a much more satisfying experience. If you are a fan of Aretha Franklin, there’s a joy to be found here. However, if you aren’t as moved by her music, it’s doubtful that this will be what inspires you to listen to more of her work. Respect is a bit long and slightly dull, but the music pulls you back in. With a slight recommendation, if you find yourself humming along to “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” then you’ll likely appreciate this enough to warrant a watch.

Jennifer Hudson




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JimmyO is one of’s longest-tenured writers, with him reviewing movies and interviewing celebrities since 2007 as the site’s Los Angeles correspondent.