The late Aretha Franklin herself made it clear she wanted Jennifer Hudson to tell her story on the big screen, and who are we to argue with the Queen of Soul?
It’s the perfect casting choice. A superstar in her own right, Hudson won best supporting actress for her film debut in “Dreamgirls” some 15 years ago and has turned in some solid work in a number of other films since then, but this is the most layered, most complex, most formidable and most enthralling performance of her career. Hudson kills it in the performance numbers (where she’s singing live), she kills it in the recording and writing sessions, and we would be remiss to overlook her strong dramatic work as she portrays Franklin from a teenager filling a Baptist church in Detroit with the sound of her once-in-a-generation voice through her slow climb to stardom to her struggles with alcoholism and abusive relationships, to her triumphant comeback, which brought her full circle back to church.
Directed by Liesl Tommy (a stage and TV veteran making her feature debut) from a sprawling, comprehensive screenplay by Tracey Scott Wilson, “Respect” is a formulaic biopic of the already well-chronicled life and times of Franklin, and there are instances when the non-musical segments drag on for a beat too long — but then it’s back to the music, with Hudson turning in a remarkable performance that doesn’t come across as an impersonation but sounds a little bit different from Jennifer Hudson and always, always feels authentic to the soaring and piercing and exhilarating signature vocals of Franklin. It’s an absolute wonder to behold.
“Respect” kicks off with an extended prologue set in the 1950s, where young Aretha (an infectiously charming Skye Dakota Turner, who has a beautiful voice) is regularly trotted out by her music-loving preacher father, C.L. Franklin (the magnificent Forest Whitaker) to sing at his legendary Saturday night parties for an audience that would often include R&B legends such as Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige). Early on, we see the complexity of her relationship with C.L., a walking contradiction who clearly loved Aretha and preached the Bible but indulged in alcohol and affairs with women — and didn’t protect his daughter, who was raped in her home and became pregnant at age 12.
Cut to a half-dozen years later, with Hudson now playing Aretha, who is a sensation singing in church and has attracted the attention of record label executives in New York City — but year after year, album after album, Aretha has only middling success and can’t figure out a formula to make chart-topping hits. Meanwhile, Aretha’s first husband and manager, Ted White (Marlon Wayans, reminding us he can be a terrific dramatic actor), a hot-headed playboy and small-time player on the music scene, clashes with C.L., who is horrified his daughter is not only putting her career in Ted’s hands, but has married him. Alas, C.L.’s instincts turn out to be right, with Ted becoming ever more controlling, contentious and violent. This film never shies away from the turmoil and the messiness that plagued Aretha in her personal life.
“Respect” reaches new heights in the middle section, as Aretha teams up with innovative R&B producer Jerry Wexler (a well-cast Marc Maron), who gets her in the studio with the legendary session musicians of Muscle Shoals, Alabama — a bunch of accountant-looking white guys who quickly found a groove with Aretha and followed her lead. Director Tommy does a splendid job of capturing Hudson’s magic as she performs renditions of “Think,” “Chain of Fools,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and of course the title number.
With a running time of 2 hours, 25 minutes, “Respect” has room to devote considerable time to Franklin’s devotion to civil rights activism; her penchant for self-destructive behavior, whether it’s through alcohol abuse or skipping concert dates — and her relationship with God and faith. Tituss Burgess delivers a grounded and invaluable performance as the Rev. Dr. James Cleveland, the gospel pioneer who was a key figure in getting Aretha (and her music) back to church.
The period-piece production design, wardrobe, hair and makeup help to set the tone, whether we’re in the late 1950s, the height of the tumultuous 1960s or the early 1970s. “Respect” is filled with memorable supporting turns, including Audra McDonald as Aretha’s mother and Saycon Sengbloh and Hailey Kilgore as her sisters, who were often in the background in more ways than one — but an old-fashioned show-business biopic such as this rises and falls on the talents of the lead, and it’s hard to imagine anyone in the world doing more justice to the legacy of Aretha Franklin than Jennifer Hudson.