One of the sad side effects of the COVID pandemic was the complete reshuffling of the movie release schedule, by necessity, due to the shuttering of theatres nationwide. Some films went online, others got delayed multiple times, and some appear to be all but abandoned at this point. For me, the biggest hit was that we wouldn’t get to see Respect, the much-anticipated biopic about Aretha Franklin with Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson in the lead role. This was a casting choice indirectly picked by the late Ms. Franklin herself, and given Hudson’s singing abilities, it’s hard to imagine anyone else being able to pull off the vocal demands of the job.
If nothing else, I would have absolutely loved to see the battle of titans in this year’s Best Actress field, as we already had Viola Davis and Andra Day nominated for playing historically great singers in the respective forms of Ma Rainey and Billie Holiday. Imagine how awesome it would have been for Jennifer Hudson to join that fray, especially in a biopic that basically demands a Best Actress nod, even though I’m opposed to the practice in general. Honestly, I had no problem losing the vast majority of the so-called blockbusters that had to be delayed and scrapped last year, but I was genuinely sad that we had to punt this wonderful woman’s story for a whole year.
So you can imagine my disappointment when it turned out to be a fairly standard biopic that added very little to the collective proceedings.
Before I delve into the problems here, let’s get the most important point out of the way. Jennifer Hudson absolutely kills it in this movie. Aretha made the right choice, as Hudson embodies not only the voice and look of Aretha Franklin, but also her on- and off-stage mannerisms. There’s an assertive dominance to the character that one would assume was Aretha’s natural state based on her myriad public appearances over her 50-year career. Hudson delivers fire with every line, soul with every note, and ice in her veins with every conflict. I would not be the least bit surprised if she got that intended nomination. She’d certainly deserve it.
But apart from the central heroine, the entire film might as well be a Lifetime Movie of the Week. There’s almost no real substance to speak of, apart from a few delightful scenes and some clever dialogue, mostly courtesy of Marlon Wayans as Aretha’s husband/manager Ted White, and Marc Maron in a relatively thankless role as record producer Jerry Wexler, whose character can basically be summed up as “Jew.”
The story’s structure is fairly one-note, but it goes all over the place, switching from flashbacks of Aretha’s childhood with her late mother (Audra McDonald) and the relentless pursuit of her career via the encouragement and obstruction of her father (Forest Whitaker) and the likes of Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige) and White. The early part of the film paints Aretha as a victim of circumstance with her mother’s death and her early pregnancies, but at other points it tries to retcon these very tragedies as motivating factors while at the same time ignoring the personifications thereof. The titular hit that makes her an international star doesn’t even materialize until over halfway through the film, and then most of her success is montaged for the rest of the second act.
Amidst all that, the film can’t help but throw in the standard-issue cliché bits that have been done to death. Because she’s a woman, she’s underestimated and underappreciated, including demands from her husband not to touch “Respect” as a song because it belongs to Otis Redding. Because this is a movie about empowering a woman, she has to be physically abused by basically every male character. Because she was an elite musician and singer, we have to show the Behind the Music moments where she succumbs to alcohol and drug addictions, including the trope of having her stumble on stage with blurred vision. And just for good measure, we get to shoehorn in a few moments of her civil rights involvement, including three scenes with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (played here by Gilbert Glenn Brown) and a switch to a more militaristic approach in her advocacy for Angela Davis. For a movie about Aretha Franklin, it ironically has a very hard time establishing a tone.
The one final confusing scene comes near the end, but this isn’t intended as a spoiler. To reclaim her status and her own agency, Aretha overcomes her addiction and decides to do a gospel album, the eventual masterpiece, “Amazing Grace.” There’s even a scene where she talks to Wexler to make the arrangements, and Wexler conditions the project on Aretha agreeing to be filmed for a documentary. This would eventually become the gorgeous film, Amazing Grace, which I saw a couple years ago, and which Aretha prevented from being released during her lifetime.
What’s weird is the fact that this documentary is brought up, but then for cinematic purposes, the movie films it out of order, with Aretha going straight to the altar to sing the title track. But that’s not what happened. If you watch the documentary, which is readily available, you’ll see that “Amazing Grace” is held until the halfway point, the end of the first day’s performance.
So why stage this at all? Why invoke a documentary that anyone can see, only to do it differently, thereby making your version of Aretha’s life ring all the more false? It’s a truly baffling creative choice. If the footage had never been found and assembled into a film on its own, I would get it, because then Respect could set the narrative. But we have the real version at our immediate disposal, and it’s fairly fresh in the minds of fans who went to see it a full two years before this movie was released. There’s dramatic license, and then there’s outright changing of events for the sake of a hero shot that isn’t needed or honestly earned. I just don’t get where director Liesl Tommy’s head was at on this one.
If the point of the movie was to make Jennifer Hudson a convincing avatar for Aretha Franklin, then mission accomplished. Her performance is stellar, and easily carries the film even through its murkiest moments. And if that was the only goal, then ultimately all that superfluous shit doesn’t really matter. I choose to infer that meaning in this case, mostly because I just really wanted to like this film after nearly two years of anticipation. I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt, but if all involved were sincerely going for prestige and a revolutionary short about a true legend, then they’ve fallen significantly short. As such, I’ll split the difference.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Did you see the “Amazing Grace” documentary? What aspects of the biopic formula – especially music biopics – would you like to see changed in the future? Let me know!