Respect review: a musical history of Aretha Franklin’s life

By Roshan Chandy

MUSIC biopics tend to be a very routine bunch.

They’re usually characterized by a battle with pills and alcohol, a scene with the manager in the recording studio and a live performance culminating the movie. Rocketman followed this formula, Bohemian Rhapsody followed this formula and now Respect follows this formula.

The point is it’s a formula that works. I liked Rocketman two years ago, but I like Respect a little bit more.

It has songs from a soul legend, bits of boozing and scenes of domestic abuse. It tampers this with a history of racism, of what it meant to be a black woman in the 20th century. For that, I commend it.

This is the authorised movie version of Aretha Franklin’s life. It’s authorised in that it was made with collaboration from Franklin’s family following her death in 2018.

There’s even a title card at the end paying tribute to Ree and scenes of a performance at the White House that made Barack Obama cry.

You’d think this would be problematic and that it would mean leaving out the bits the family don’t want you to see.

The fact that Aretha was abused by her orthodox father and even more orthodox husband, the fact she spent days and nights glugging down vodka and the fact that her mother died when she was a little girl.

But no. All these moments are in the movie. We see Aretha break down while blowing out the candles on her birthday cake at her seventh birthday party. The actress who plays the young Ree is a phenomenal talent – such a natural when it comes to perfecting child-like tears.

From the outset, it was clear Ree was special. There’s even a line where Forest Whittaker’s dad figure says “you’re special, Ree, you have a talent they call genius” and Ree really was a genius. A true child prodigy who had a gift for singing from a very young age.

“Singing is sacred, Ree, and you shouldn’t do it just cos somebody wants you to, what’s more important is that you are treated with dignity and respect” says a character early on in the movie. Unfortunately Ree was rarely treated with dignity and respect despite singing a song called RESPECT. She was slapped by her father and slapped even harder by her husband, but most of all she was disrespected because the world was against her because she was a black woman in segregation USA.

There’s much mention of Martin Luther King who appears in the movie and we see his assasination play out on screen. Without question, the world wasn’t on Aretha’s side simply because she had dark skin and people were prejudiced. This makes her road to fame even more inspiring and inspirational.

“Find the songs that move you, until you do that you’re going nowhere” and it was true. Aretha’s life was held back by the fact she was not treated equally because of her skin colour.

You get the sense from this movie that each of her songs were a paean to her experiences as a black woman. Respect for example, was about her desire to be treated with respect and like any other woman while Natural Woman refers to her embracing her blackness and celebrating it with gusto.

On the performance front, I think Jennifer Hudson is a great Franklin. I wouldn’t call it a transformation – not quite like Renee Zellwegger in Judy or Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour.

I still got the sense I was watching beautiful Jennifer rather than Aretha, but that’s no fault of hers, it’s just a fault of her star power. I’m sure she’ll be getting Oscar attention next year, but her acting is blown out of the park by her younger co-star who makes us feel for Ree’s little girl ego.

Who really should be getting Academy Award attention is Forest Whittaker who froths with fury as father Clarence. I’ve always loved Forest Whittaker even with dodgy English accents in The Crying Game. He’s an avuncular presence and has the wisest voice in the world.

Whittaker also comes across like a very unassuming man. You would never expect him as a scary abusive father, but his kindly spectacles and doe eye mask an iron-fisted slice of ham. It’s a terrific performance that cuts to the heart of why Aretha was so scared of men. He really was a s**t of epic proportions.

There’s lots of use of the n-word. Aretha’s husband even decks a guy after he gets called that.

I guess it was just a common occurrence in the 60s where this movie was set – where racism was accepted in a way that it isn’t today and I can only hope we’ll reach a point where homophobia isn’t accepted in the same way.

There’s fantastic musical numbers too. I almost got the sense I was watching less a biopic than a musical.

Each song paints a picture postcard or snapshot of Aretha’s life – like a portrait stashed in an attic or a vinyl on repeat. I loved, for example, when Aretha’s mother plays the piano and gets Aretha to sit next to her and sing “Aretha’s doing ALLRIIGHT!”. So lovely.

It all builds to the predictable performance finale. Aretha performs Natural Woman to a crowd of hundreds. It’s inspiring and explosive and from the heart. You knew that finale was coming as you do with every beat in this film, but when a film is this good and entertaining that’s no bad thing.

This is the best version of Aretha’s life we could ever see on screen. It’s as much a paean to her hard work, determination and respect as it is a history of racism, booze and abuse. That’s a cocktail that packs a punch like no other.

Featured Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

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