Respect goes through the artistic and personal life of Aretha Franklin with intelligence, supported by the interpretation of Jennifer Hudson

Respect (United States/Canada, 2021). Direction: Liesl Tommy. Film script: Tracey Scott-Wilson, Khouri. Photography: Kramer Morgenthau. Mounting: Avril Beukes. List: Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Tituss Burgess, Audra McDonald, Marc Maron, Kimberly Scott. Duration: 145 minutes. Available: Movistar Play, Flow (alquiler), Google Play y Apple TV+. Our opinion: good.

One of the biggest challenges when conceiving a musical biopic is how to tie the life and work of an artist into a story that is as faithful as possible to the essence of his story and the imprint of his art. In that sense, many films have been limited to the chronology of events and the mimicry of the performance –Ray (2004)-, some were affirmed at a moment in the life of the character as a metaphor for his legacy –the resource of Judy (2019)-, and others took some risk, reinvented the character in the light of their own perspective, as has been done by Rocketman (2019) by making Elton John the heart of a musical that he himself could have imagined (in fact, he produced the movie).

Respect combines several strategies: on the one hand, it follows the chronology of Aretha Franklin’s life from her childhood to the peak of her popularity with the release of Amazing Grace, the best-selling gospel album of his career; on the other, intelligently, and thanks to Jennifer Hudson’s impeccable performance, it links the inner world of the artist, her fears and demons, with her musical talent -marked by some hint of psychology-, paying attention to the key moments of her career as outbursts of creation. Only in a brief montage scene can we go through the string of records that he released under the Columbia Records label at the height of his career, but from there the film breaks free, and exposes the gestation of a voice and an identity beneath of the arrangements of a song like “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)”, of the transformation of “Respect” into a hit, of the birth of the Queen of Soul as a landmark of 20th century music.

There are two men who mark the history of Aretha Franklin, and Liesl Tommy’s debut feature condenses the first two acts in the singer’s life around their presence. The first is his father, Reverend CL Franklin (Forest Whitaker), a key figure in the Baptist church in the Detroit area. Her leadership expands from her family to the congregation, and the omnipresence in Aretha’s life from her early childhood – accentuated by the move and subsequent death of her mother – becomes one of the formal axes of the story. The house in Detroit is a strange mixture of prison and refuge, the seed of her teenage pregnancies, the launch site of her “demons”, but also the meeting place with the activists for racial rights – the presence of Martin is key Luther King for his future activism-, the love for gospel, the deep belief that was decisive in his whole life.

Jennifer Hudson plays Aretha Franklin and Forest Whitaker plays her father, Reverend CL Franklin, in Respect (2021).Quantrell D. Colbert

Whitaker turns Reverend Franklin into a complex man, never reduced to the rigidity of his speech, but fearsome and fascinating at the same time, which explains the inalienable influence on the performer’s life. The same does not happen with the second man in the film, Ted White (Marlon Wayans), husband and representative of Aretha Franklin, a strategic piece for her attempt at emancipation that later became a new trap. Here the film is tempted to turn marital abuse into a link for the narrative jumps in the story: the arguments lead to a return home; the blows and the note in Times, the subsequent separation. The bond with White, his jealousy and arrogance, acquire greater density when it is the music that becomes the protagonist: the excellent scene of the arrangements of “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)” in the Alabama studio under the sponsorship of record producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Marron), or the exuberant gestation of the riff of “Respect” on the piano with his sisters.

In this sense, Hudson never seeks to imitate the voice and expressions of Aretha Franklin, but to appropriate that personality to compose a fictional character that is born from that encounter. For this reason, the musical numbers manage to be functional to the story and not so much to the mystique of the fan –something that ends up affecting a film like Bohemian Rhapsody– and reinvent the experience of that appearance: the costumes, the hair, the choruses and the arrangements that defined Franklin’s style on stage. The film does not bind her to the historical framework, but understands that it was a phenomenon of the late 1960s, when she achieved the long-awaited hit, and brings together the twilight of that decade -with the assassination of Martin Luther King as a thermometer- with the conversion of that girl who sang in church into the diva of soul.

Respect In her third act, she explores a presence that is even more elusive than that of the men who conditioned her in her life: that of her own character. Diva, daughter, woman, believer, Aretha Franklin unfolds in her own time, that of her personality and her music, that of an art that still keeps her alive.