TL;DR – A film anchored by a transcendent performance that captures you from the start and never lets you go.
Post-Credit Scene – There is a mid-credit scene
Disclosure – I attended a Press Screening of this film
Respect Review –
It has been the era of the musical biopic, with Elton John, Freddie Mercury, and even the Sparks Brothers getting a film all about them. But if one person is missing from this list, it would be the seminal Aretha Franklin. Her voice is like no other, and you get taken to another world every time you hear it. Today, we get to look at a film that not only fixes that glaring gap but does so in a way that left tears in my eyes.
So to set the scene, we open in Detroit, 1952, in the house of Reverend C. L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker). He is hosting a party for several influential people in the African-American community. Making his way to the back of the house, he finds Aretha ‘Re’ Franklin (Skye Dakota Turner) asleep in her bed. He asks her if she wants to sing, and the answer is, of course, yes. Even at a young age, she leads the choir at her father’s church, but as Aretha (Jennifer Hudson) grows older, she wants to do more to help Martin Luther King Jr. (Gilbert Glenn Brown). But at a party, her father surprised her with a ticket to New York to meet with John Hammond (Tate Donovan), a famous music producer, who could make her into a star.
Of course, the first thing we have to talk about is Jennifer Hudson’s performance. Throughout this film, she depicts Miss Franklin in every stage of life, the grand heights and the deep lows. You know an actor is good when they can get those extremes of emotions and make them believable and impactful. But not only this, in every moment, there is so much nuance to her performance that you could be given to thinking this is documentary footage if it were not for the radically different camera stock. Depicting someone so well-known is no easy task, and Hudson goes for a performance that invokes the star while still making it her own.
This is even before we get to the music, which is some of the best. As you sit there and listen as hit after hit reverberates around the room, you can’t help but feel that joy in your heart. The film knows this, and when it knows you want to stop and hear the whole song call out, it lets you do that. It would have been challenging to get someone who could even come close to how good Miss Franklin is in real life, but they do it with Jennifer. It also helps that all of the co-stars also step up to their roles, with a clear shout out for Tituss Burgess, who is sort of the film’s conscience.
I feel that where people might become frustrated with the film is how it deals with some of the darker aspects of Miss Franklin’s life and the structure. I have seen some commentary that the film didn’t go deeper into the bad parts of her life, tending to infer rather than show. For me, this was the right choice because it could have become voyeuristic otherwise. The film’s structure was another area where it felt odd that they were dwelling on some areas and blasting through others. You understand why they did that when the film hits its conclusion, but in the moment, it feels odd in places.
One aspect of the film that I want to talk about is how it unpacks the theme of faith. Too often, films dip into this world … well, they fall into two distinct binaries. The first casts faith in an almost characteristically evil part of a person, a defect, something that leads them to act stupidly like sticking their head in an egg that dooms everyone. On the other side, you get saccharin morality tales that have no quality because people watch them irrespective of quality. Here we get a film that takes the time to honestly reflect both the main character’s faith but also how that faith can be outworked for both good and bad. You get characters using faith as a weapon to attack others or to deflect their own failings on others. But we also see how it can be used to strengthen and support people. It is a more nuanced look at both faith in general and someone’s personal faith journey with the realistic highs and lows.
In the end, do we recommend Respect? Absolutely. The performances, music, and story all meld together into a film that deeply moved me. If you liked Respect, I would also recommend to you The United States vs. Billie Holiday.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Respect
Directed by – Liesl Tommy
Story by – Callie Khouri & Tracey Scott Wilson
Screenplay by – Tracey Scott Wilson
Music by – Kris Bowers
Cinematography by – Kramer Morgenthau
Edited by – Avril Beukes
Production/Distribution Companies – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Bron Studios, Creative Wealth Media, Glickmania, One Community, United Artists & Universal Pictures.
Starring – Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Skye Dakota, Tituss Burgess, Gilbert Glenn Brown, Kimberly Scott, LeRoy McClain, Saycon Sengbloh, Hailey Kilgore, Mary J. Blige, Kelvin Hair, Heather Headley, Marc Maron, Tate Donovan, Lodric D. Collins, Brenda Nicole Moorer, Albert Jones, Beau Scheier, Myk Watford, David Simpson, Nevaeh Moore, Kennedy Chanel & Peyton Jackson
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: PG; Germany: na; New Zealand: M; United Kingdom: na; United States: PG-13