By Jonas Schwartz
There's a tantalizing movie inside the brick wall that is Respect, the new biography of Aretha Franklin. But due to poor direction, poor writing, and incoherent editing, it's impossible to penetrate it. Jennifer Hudson is volcanic singing the role, but it is impossible to track the character presented because of narrative issues, so the audience loses interest in the story of this musical genius.
Respect follows Aretha from her childhood, as the daughter of a controlling Baptist minister (Forrest Whitaker) and an estranged mother (Audra McDonald). Aretha suffers both the wrath of her father and the sexual abuse of a congregant (who fathers two of her children according to Wikipedia, but that fact was cloudy in the film itself) and jumps at the chance to escape her repressive family home with a man (Marlon Wayans) just as manipulative as her father. At first, Aretha flounders as she can’t find her distinctive style, but the musical phenom discovers her voice and creates a catalog of monster hits like “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”, “Think”, and “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman.'
The script by Tracey Scott Wilson (story by Callie Khouri, Oscar winner for Thelma and Louise), follows every bio cliché, without adding any dazzle to keep audiences invested, but also clutters the story so that it’s unclear of the facts that led the young girl to sprout into the iconic diva. The film skips around ferociously. One moment, a predatory family friend is locking himself in the bedroom with adolescent Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner), and then she has children. There’s no conversations about a 12-year-old being raped and having a child at that age. She just all the sudden has children running around the house. Later, Aretha scores a huge comeback with “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” but the audience never sees anything from the moment she revamps the song in her unique style with her sisters (back-up singers) forming her version of the already popular Otis Redding song to performing at Madison Square Garden. How does she feel when the song comes out, when her years of being ignored have ended? I’m not sure. I’ll have to look it up on Wikipedia because the script doesn’t care.
There are a few scenes the script gets perfectly. First, an argument in a dressing room with family friend Dinah Washington (Mary J Blige) that sets Aretha on her course of finding her groove. Second, the moments that demonstrate the creative process are effective. The scenes at the Alabama studio where — under the eye of her producer, Jerry Wexler (Mark Maron), the studio founder Rick Hall (Myk Watford), as well as her hot-headed husband — Aretha and the band of southern Caucasians turn a bland song into the hit “I’ll Never Love a Man (The Way That I Love You)” are riveting. Also observing Franklin and her sisters restructure “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” into the blockbuster it became is exhilarating. But those scenes are few and far between.
Director Liesl Tommy, who comes mostly from Broadway and episodic television, is directing her first major motion picture and her direction on the film lacks the epic scope required for the subject matter of this caliber. The movie drags, mostly because every scene seems lifted from a TV-Movie biopic you’d find on Lifetime. There are no surprises in store for the audience OTHER than THAT VOICE.
It's no wonder Franklin personally picked Jennifer Hudson to play her. Hudson sells a song like she’s expelling a deadly toxin from her body before it eats her alive. Her intonation, her vocal heft, her kindness towards the lyrics, exemplify a master Diva. She can act a tune and make the audience feel every emotion flooding from her. Her acting in book scenes, though, is fair. She’s not a poor actress, but her caliber while singing far surpasses her depth when speaking for the character. Her Oscar® for Dreamgirls was mostly due to “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” and “I Am Changing” — NOT for her dialogue. And for those two songs, she deserved every ounce of the gold.
The rest of the cast give fine performances, particularly Whitaker, but the script gives them little on which to chew. Audra McDonald, a multi-Tony-winning dynamo (she could walk across the stage and still win a Tony), is wasted in the underwritten role of her mother. She shines in her moments interacting with young Turner, but the audience should get to spend more intimate moments with the two.
Respect features an outstanding soundtrack, with Hudson owning all the songs that made Franklin a star. But the film itself makes little sense. It feels like the film canister accidentally mixed the reels and left two or three in the trash. Aretha Franklin deserves more RESPECT. And so does Jennifer Hudson.