No critic worth his or her salt would dare make an Oscar prediction in mid-August. The annual awards season doesn’t really kick into its second gear until the September film festivals of Venice, Telluride and Toronto begin, and there are far too many films and performances to absorb before you’d even consider writing a name in pen on an Academy Awards ballot.
So let me just say that Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls) delivers yet another Oscar-worthy performance, this time as iconic soul singer and songwriter Aretha Franklin in director Leisl Tommy’s Respect. Hudson is a force, demonstrating the same gravitational pull as the legend she portrays. And while Respect, as a whole, plays as a sturdy, no-frills musician biopic (of which the industry has produced countless examples), Hudson really is the reason to see this, and she is reason enough to go.
Jennifer Hudson channels Aretha Franklin in Respect, and it’s mesmerizing.
I’m not saying that a musician needs to played by another musician to make a biopic work, but the examples we have lends enough credence to the theory that you can’t be faulted for believing it. Watching Jennifer Hudson disappear into the role of Aretha Franklin in Respect reminded me of classically-trained pianist Jamie Foxx slipping on the sunglasses of Ray Charles. The two individuals almost become inseparable, so that when Hudson stands on a stage meant to represent New York City’s Madison Square Garden and belts out the titular song, you assume you have been transported to a live Aretha Franklin performance. The sound mix on Respect is just that good.
It helps that Hudson can sing anything. And I do mean anything. Respect covers a significant and tumultuous early period in Franklin’s professional career, showing the 18-year-old singer signing with Columbia Records and staying with her until she records her Grammy Award-winning 1972 album Amazing Grace, still the best-selling record in Franklin’s entire catalogue. Over the course of that time, Franklin experimented with everything as she sought to establish her identity, switching from jazz and standards to pop music, soul and, finally, gospel. Hudson convincingly sings every note, and you marvel at her spiritual performance but then stop to realize, “Wait, Franklin did all of this first!” Respect, at the very least, conveys Franklin’s versatility as a songwriter and performer, as well as her passion for perfection when it came to her music.
Aretha Franklin lived an incredibly full life, and Respect captures… some of it.
You’d need hours to properly convey all that Aretha Franklin achieved, not just in the field of music, but also in her activism and political affiliations. As mentioned, the movie begins with Franklin’s childhood years (with Skye Dakota Turner providing a shining light as young Aretha), but it stops in 1972, then tries to highlight the rest of Franklin’s accomplishments in that cliched montage of title cards over the credits. This includes -- but is not limited to -- Franklin being the youngest female performer to be admitted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; her performance of “My Country, Tis of Thee” and the inauguration of President Barack Obama, and her receipt of the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Respect skims over these moments because there’s more than enough to juggle in the chosen time period. Too much, almost. There are multiple subplots that unfurl in this meaty movie that still made me wish we could have stopped and explored them a little deeper. Franklin’s dysfunctional relationship with her first husband, Ted White (an unrecognizable Marlon Wayans), serves the purpose of proving Franklin could find the strength to escape an abusive situation. Complicated history with Franklin’s father (Forest Whitaker), grandmother (Kimbery Scott) and sisters is dabbled with, then dropped. Even an early rape that cast a heavy shadow over the rest of Franklin’s existence -- she referred to it only as “The Demon” and it seemed to consume her -- begged for more explanation. Respect plays the hits. You’ll just wish the liner notes provided more descriptive details.
Music is in the fiber of Respect, just as it was in the fiber of Aretha Franklin.
Still, Respect deserves to be seen -- and seen in a movie theater with the best sound system available -- because Franklin’s songs and Hudson’s renditions help the film to soar. Respect relies so heavily on music, you could argue it traded its script for a songbook. In its most compelling moments, Respect gives us insight into Franklin’s extraordinary song-writing process. The scenes between Franklin and her Muscle Shoals supporting band are all-timers in the musician biopic genre. And the journey of the song “Respect” from the piano keys in Franklin’s apartment to the stage at Madison Square Garden is exhilarating.
Sometimes, I wish Respect injected a little more flair into its storytelling. At the same time, if Liesl Tommy decided her movie didn’t need more pizzazz because it already had Hudson, it’s hard to argue against that point.
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Sean O’Connell is a journalist and CinemaBlend’s Managing Editor. Having been with the site since 2011, Sean interviewed myriad directors, actors and producers, and created ReelBlend, which he proudly cohosts with Jake Hamilton and Kevin McCarthy. And he's the author of RELEASE THE SNYDER CUT, the Spider-Man history book WITH GREAT POWER, and an upcoming book about Bruce Willis.