Respect review: Jennifer Hudson stars in lackluster Aretha Franklin biopic
Liesl Tommy's dutiful account of the Queen of Soul's career doesn't measure up to its subject.
The most common failure of artist biopics is simple unworthiness — when a movie's subject is a bona fide icon of singular talent, it becomes all the more conspicuous that the film devoted to them has the originality of an overly reverent book report. Falling cleanly into this trap, Liesl Tommy's Respect is a dutiful but disappointingly shallow account of Aretha Franklin's early artistic evolution. It isn't nearly as compelling a movie as Franklin was a singer, but while the film never fully captures her brilliance, it does at least effectively allude to it.
Those glimmers of greatness come, appropriately, in the music. The film rolls out all the tracks one can hope and expect to hear, presented both stripped-down in the studio and fabulously dressed-up onstage, and the chief pleasure of the movie is to see them so attractively presented in clear historical context. Franklin herself handpicked Jennifer Hudson to play her (and was involved in the production up until her death in 2018), and the Oscar winner, singing every song live, does as well as any person conceivably could to imitate the sound of the Queen of Soul's otherworldly instrument.
Conveying Aretha as a person turns out to be the more elusive task. Chronicling about a 20-year span, from her childhood to her landmark 1972 live recording of "Amazing Grace," Respect gives a wide if not a deep perspective on her career in the context of her faith, her activism, and her complicated family life. Stage and TV director Tommy makes her feature directorial debut on the film, working from a script by Tracey Scott Wilson, also earning her first feature credit as a screenwriter. When faced with something difficult — especially one significant, easily Googled trauma of Franklin's young life — Tommy and Wilson repeatedly rely on ellipsis; one scene later in the movie seems to explain the technique away by rather clumsily suggesting that Franklin herself coped by repressing her worst memories.
It's obvious that Tommy, Wilson, Hudson, and everyone else involved embarked upon this endeavor with an overabundance of respect — for lack of a better word — for the legendary singer. But glossing over her darkest personal moments and sanitizing some of the more complex or controversial aspects of her life (most egregiously in the portrayal of her father, the formidable C. L. Franklin, played here by Forest Whitaker) weakens this version of Aretha, undermining what should be a celebration of her extraordinary creative legacy. Ultimately, Respect generally hits the notes it needs to, both musically and historically, but comes up short in what should be the most crucial ingredient — soul. C+