Respect (2021) Review

HUDSON SHINES IN A

STANDARD BIOPIC DRAMA


 

Aretha Franklin, the queen of soul herself. The allure, excitement, and overall fascination of the talented singer has captivated millions across the world, spanning generations with her iconic voice and memorable tunes. Her fame popularity grew with her releases, populating the musical airwaves with her songs that were comprised of multitude of acclaimed hits and album chart toppers, including a multitude of releases, 112 charted singles on Billboard, and won 18 Grammy Awards for her music. Beyond her singing and gifted music, Franklin received numerous awards throughout her career, including the National Medal of Arts, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the first female performer to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005, inducted in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2012, and Rolling Stone magazine ranker her #1 on its lists of the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” and #9 on its list of “100 Greatest Artists of All Time”. Following her death on August 16th, 2018, Franklin was awarded a special citation by the Pulitzer Prize, citing “for her inedible contribution to American music and culture for more than five decades” as well as being inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2020. Now, United Artists Releasing and director Liesl Tommy give the “Queen of Soul” her cinematic biographical spotlight within the filmmaking world with the release of Respect. Does this bio drama shed new light Aretha’s life or is it just a shallow representation for the famed singer?

THE STORY


At a young age, Aretha Franklin (Jennifer Hudson), who is also known as “Ree” to those close to her, has been gifted with such powerful and strong voice to sing, performing at her father’s, C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), a well-known minster, pleasure at their local church and at the occasional parties at their home. Ree finds comfort within her sisters, Emma (Saycon Sengbloh) and Carolyn (Hailey Kilgore), and warmth from her mother, Barbara (Audra McDonald), but finds an obedient submission from her father, who touts the young girl around; exploiting her voice. As she grows older, Aretha soon gets a chance at a musical career at Columbia Records, with her father as her manager, which provides trouble for the young man, who is being swooned by one Ted White (Marlon Wayans), a young charming man who has his sight on Aretha’s hand as well as her voice. In time, Aretha breaks for her father and has Ted as her manager, signing up with Atlantic Records to pursue her musical career, with the pair soon tying the knot together in the process. As Aretha becomes more famous and popular with her musical releases, her personal life reaches a boiling point, caught between the public eye, her mental health, her abusive relationships, and her inner demons; reaching a crossroads that only she can find herself out of.

THE GOOD / THE BAD


Just like special attraction and affinity towards movies, music is another big piece of my passion; finding the various sounds, lyrics, and melodies of a variety of genres to my liking and ones that I find comfort in listen to. Music is a universal quality (transcending races, language, and gender) as well as way to harmonize what we are feeling in our lives (i.e., finding lyrics and melodies to reflect upon on person’s situation). I definitely can…. just like movies themselves. Thus, music is very influential part of my life. While not a part of my generation styles of music, I did, like many, find Aretha Franklin’s music to my liking. While I don’t exactly own a particular one of her many albums, I’ve always liked her songs, for I heard them in various media facets, including in movies, TV shows, cartoon parodies, on the radio, and several other outlets. The importance and impact that Aretha Franklin’s music is surely one that is greatly praise and one that deserves plenty of respect for her contribution to the industry. I don’t have a particular “favorite” song of hers, but I always like hearing her sing “Amazing Grace”, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, as well as “Respect”. Overall, I think that Aretha Franklin is one of those musical artists that everyone loves, and her songs have truly become iconic and timeless in their own right.

This brings me back to talking about my review for the film Respect, 2021 musical biopic drama for Aretha Franklin herself. I do remember seeing the first teaser trailer for this project a while back. I think it was when I saw 2019’s Rocketman in theaters. Of course, with all the success of both Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody, this was a prime idea; finding Franklin’s story to be compelling enough for a cinematic treatment. Plus, the idea of singer Jennifer Hudson playing the famed “Queen of Soul” musician seem like a great and almost a guarantee “slam dunk” for an Oscar nomination from her. After I saw the teaser, I didn’t hear much about the project until sometime later when the film’s full theatrical trailer, which showcased plenty of new footage and what was in store for this upcoming biopic and did really grab my interest in seeing this movie when it came out. So, I was looking forward to seeing Respect, which was originally set for a limited theatrical release on December 25th, 2020, and then followed by an expanding its release on January 8th, 2021, and going nationwide the week after; a prime time for the award season. Unfortunately, due the on-going events of the COVID-19 pandemic, the movie was delayed and shuffled around for a release date of August 13th, 2021 (my birthday). I did wait a few weeks after its theatrical release to see the movie as I was busy with work and did eventually see it a few days before my vacation to Costa Rica. So, while I’m on vacation, I decided to complete a few of my reviews, including the one for Respect. And what did I think of it? Well, it’s good, but it has its problems. While Respect gives Hudson and great platform to shine on as the legendary singer, Respect is “by-the-numbers” biographical drama film that struggle to find its own rhythm within Franklin’s life story. It’s still a good movie and one that deserves to be seeing, the film itself struggles in a few areas and needs more finesse in its shaping / execution.

Respect is directed by Liesl Tommy, whose previous directorial works includes TV episodes of various TV series like The Walking Dead, Jessica Jones, and Mrs. Fletcher. Given her background as a director for television shows, Tommy makes the leap to theatrical feature films with Respect. In this regard, I think that Tommy does a good job. Yes, there are problems with the movie (more on that below), but as a directorial debut film into the realm full-length movies, I think that Tommy does a decent job that surely could’ve gone sour in lesser hands. Tommy does know how to bring the camera close-up on its various characters; staging plenty of dramatic moments for us (the viewers) to see in a more intimate look. Tommy also makes the musical sequences of Respect shine the brightest; demonstrating Hudson’s vocals to match Aretha’s iconic voice. The staging of those scenes is great, and Tommy handles those moments masterfully. I also think that Tommy does a good job in showing the “human” aspect of Aretha’s life by displaying her own personal demons that she must battle throughout the movie, including her parents, the men in her life, and finding herself. Naturally, I figured that were some elements that were embellished for a theatrical / dramatic purpose, but (as a whole) Tommy gives the movie enough compassion and humanism effects to make the story of Aretha Franklin’s journey to fame intriguing as well dramatically entertaining.

The story in Respect is one that works for the film’s benefit, but sometimes struggles (I’ll mention more on that below). As for the positives, the narrative of the film showcases plenty of Aretha’s life, showing her childhood life and how that shaped / followed her into her adulthood as she undergoes her rise to stardom and the struggle she faces. To me, I was very interested in Franklin’s life as I really didn’t know much about her personal struggles. Yes, as I mentioned, I loved her music and saw her as an icon in the music industry, but the movie gives a very intimate look into what Aretha faced in both her struggles and triumph in her career. It’s very meaningful, tragic, and somewhat enlightening that someone like her can face such hardships and turmoil in her personal life, all the while becoming one of the most influential musician talents in the entire music industry. So, within these aspects, I was looking very interested and was invested in seeing Aretha’s story come alive throughout the feature’s narrative. This is probably why her story was selected for a film adaptation cinematic treatment and Respect certainly does show the dynamics of Franklin’s life. Plus, the movie does show how she wasn’t an instant hit. Sure, she had a gifted voice, but her fame in being recognized took a while and I like how Tommy showcases those moments. This also extends to how some of her big hits were produced, with Tommy and his team focusing on documenting the process of how Aretha created some of her bigger hit singles. This was something that was akin to several sequences showcased in Bohemian Rhapsody, which was one of my favorite parts, by showing us (the viewers) the creative process behind her music. Overall, why the film is a tad flawed in its undertaking, I think that Tommy’s iteration of Aretha Franklin’s movie is still relatively good and quite entertaining.

In the technical presentation of the feature, Respect is relatively good and solid production endeavor. The film beautifully presented in a very quality way, providing the right necessary cinematics to make the feature’s background setting feel believable within the late 50s all the way through the 70s era. Every detail of set-pieces, production layouts, and costume attires feel organic and appropriate for the era as well as the various hair styles and make-up. Plus, the costume designs for some of the outfits that Aretha wears while performing are great. Thus, the movie’s “behind the scenes, including Ina Mayhew (production design), Sarah Carter and Cathy T. Marshall (set decorations), and Clint Ramos (costume designs), deserve a lot of credit for the film’s visual aesthetic being so appealing. Accompanied by those filmmaking elements is the film’s cinematography, which was done by Kramer Morgenthau, and are cinematically presented in a very beautiful way, especially in those moments where Aretha is performing on stage. Additionally, I thought that the film’s editing was pretty good, so I do also have to mention Arvil Beukes for her efforts on the production. Naturally, while the film’s score, which was composed by Kris Bowers, delivers a solid musical composition for the movie’s background music (hitting the right amount of soft touches and dramatic pieces), Respect’s soundtrack (meaning the musical songs that are played of Franklin’s songs) are the feature’s truly highlight. The soundtrack itself bursting with the Queen of Soul’s favorite hits, which are full on display throughout the entire movie, especially with Hudson singing them. If you’re fan of Franklin’s music…. this is one soundtrack that you must buy.

Unfortunately, Respect does falter within its undertaking and execution of cinematically telling of Franklin’s life, which makes the feature less impactful as a biographical drama. How so? Well, the main culprit of the film (as a general whole) is presented in a way that’s very “straightforward” and standard for biopic examination film. This means that the film itself is presented in a very traditional manner and doesn’t really color “outside the lines” within its narrative framing, which proves to be problematic when trying to map out Franklin’s career and personal life. This problem comes from both from the script as well as a few bits from the director. The script, which was penned by Tracey Scott Wilson and Callie Khouri, falters in trying to full encompass most of the events that shaped Aretha Franklin’s life from her upbringing to her powerful status as an iconic musical artist. There’s story elements and narrative threads that the film presents, including Aretha’s relationship with her mother, her rape as a young child, having a child at young age, her rough relationship with her father, her drinking, her first husband controlling her and few others. And that’s to mention her musical career. Thus, there’s a lot of story to unfold in Respect and some ideas never fully panned out and almost glossed over a few times. From the director’s standpoint, everything is presented and framed in a very standard way, which makes some of narrative events that takes place very predictable and almost formulaic. The structure of the feature is also very rigid in traditional biopic fashion, including a rise to stardom the first act, the fame and struggles in the second act, and the resolving conclusion to a character’s struggles in the third act. It’s all very straightforward and Respect feels that way; never straying away from the proven formula that has worked in the past. Thus, the movie’s direction is somewhat standard and never really feels different; struggling to find its own identity as a movie and only coming up as a surface level biographical drama film.

From a director’s standpoint, the movie pacing is very unbalanced, with some moments being genuinely interested and exciting, while parts are very moot and pretty forgetful. Tommy does seem struggle in trying to stage everything in a well-timed manner. There’s a lot to unpack within Aretha’s story and, while Tommy and Khouri / Wilson present a lot in the movie, the execution of it all feels clunky and drags the feature along by overextending the film. A result of this comes in the form of the movie is way too long, and I do mean that. How long? The movie clocks in at around at roughly 145 minutes, which translate into two hours and twenty-five minutes. For standard biopic drama, that is quite excessive runtime, and the final cut of Respect clearly shows that. A few scenes are a bit mundane and unimportant (in the grand scheme of things), which creates a sluggishness in various sequences. By the time that the movie reaches its second act, the movie feels longer than it should; finding Respect overstaying its welcome and just feels bloated in all of its acts.

Lastly, as a minor point of criticism, I think that the movie’s ending doesn’t resonate as strong as the film is trying to make it. With the film overextending itself in such a tedious way, the climatic point where the movie resolves Franklin’s life in Respect seems a bit clunky. Yes, its more of a character-built style moment of clarity of her “finding her voice” within the retrospect of her own personal turmoil, but where that point leads to feel a bit hallow and unimaginative; never truly warranting a true cinematic satisfying ending to the picture. To me, it just seems like an odd choice to where to end the movie and I think many will agree on that.

The cast in Respect is a mixture of good and bad. The good part is the talented of which was selected by a grouping of fine actors and actresses to play this various character, with many being quite skilled in their theatrical craft. Not one talent gives a bad performance as all are solid across the board. The bad is that some of these characters are left with either cookie cutter character shells or not enough time to fully developed in character themselves (regardless of first or secondary characters). Who actually shines the absolute best in the film would definitely have to be singer / actress Jennifer Hudson, who plays the film’s central protagonist role of Aretha Franklin. Hudson, who musical career speaks for herself as well as her roles in Dreamgirls, Cats, and The Secret Life of Bees, has demonstrate how powerful her vocals are and how well her singing is. Thus, it comes at no surprise, that Hudson would want to tackle such role as Aretha Franklin in a movie like this. And to that end, I think she does a masterful job. As Aretha, Hudson’s powerful voice matches perfectly with Franklin’s iconic sound; singing / performing beautifully whenever she on-screen singing. This is where the film truly shines and becomes great. Beyond those moments of music and singing, I really think that Hudson does a great job; showcasing her acting chops in a character that is quite multifaceted within various feeling and emotions for the actresses / singer to sink her teeth in. Overall, regardless of what you might think about this movie (good or bad), Jennifer Hudson’s performance as Aretha Franklin is perhaps the defining positive attribute that Respect has going for it. It’s almost a forgone conclusion that Hudson will probably be nominated for her role in this movie during the upcoming award season….and I hope she wins.

Behind Hudson, several larger supporting players in the movie do shine such as actor Forest Whitaker as Aretha’s father / manager, C.L. Franklin. Whitaker, known for his roles in Black Panther, The Last King of Scotland and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, has always been a very skilled actor, with some of his past performance proven to be Oscar-worthy. Thus, his participation in Respect definitely lends weight, with Whitaker acting as the “seasoned veteran” of the feature. As Aretha’s father, there is an underlining aggressiveness / dominating tone that Whitaker portrays in Franklin’s father, demonstrating how authoritative he was with her and those around her. In short, Whitaker is fascinating in the movie and adds another meaty character to his career of acting character roles. Likewise, actor Marlon Wayans does an exceptional job as Aretha’s first husband / manager, Ted White. Wayans, known for his roles in The Wayans Bros., White Chicks, and Marlon, has always played the more comedic role in his career; playing up to his strengths within those endeavors. In his involvement in Respect is great because it shows a different facet to Wayan’s acting talents by portraying Ted White as a charmer on his surface, but gives a darker / controlling man underneath. He’s really great in the role and, much like Whitaker’s character, shows the controlling / abusive nature that Aretha faces with the men in her life. As a side-note, I did think actor Marc Maron (GLOW and Maron) does a good job as Jerry Wexler, Aretha’s new producer at Atlantic Records.

Unfortunately, some of the more important character in Aretha’s life are largely pushed aside and, while present in the film, they just don’t simply amount to much beyond several key sequences. This includes actress Audra McDonald (Beauty and the Beast and Private Practice) as Aretha’s mother Barbara Siggers Franklin, actor Albert Jones (Mindhunter and House of Cards) as Aretha’s tour manager / second lover Ken Cunningham, and actresses Saycon Sengbloh (In the Dark and Scandal) and Hailey Kilgore (Amazing Stories and The Village) as Aretha’s older and young sisters Emma and Carolyn Franklin. Yes, I do understand that all of these characters are more “secondary” characters in the film and play more of the supporting role, but most of them are quite important in Aretha’s life (both personal and public). It’s just a shame that the feature’s script doesn’t fully develop these particular characters in a way to do just to them as the acting talents that play them are good, but are left with not much to work with beyond a few key points. It’s not a fully blown disappointment, but rather a missed opportunity.

Other supporting characters, including actor Tate Donovan (Rocketman and Hercules) as record producer John Hammond, singer / actress Mary J. Blige (Rock of Ages and Mudbound) as musician Dinah Washington, actor Kelvin Hair (Sistas and Black Lightning) as musician Sam Cooke, actress Heather Headley (Breakin’ All the Rules and Chicago Med) as gospel musician Clara Ward, and actor Gilbert Glenn Brown (The Young and the Restless and Good Behavior) as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., sort of get the short end of the stick in Respect. To be sure, all of these acting talents play their parts exceptionally well in the movie, but the film’s script never really gives these characters to shine completely, with some feeling incomplete in the narrative of film (i.e., popping in at one point and never showing up again in the feature). This (again) makes Respect feel a bit wonky within its various side / supporting characters during this point, with some almost acting like an afterthought.

FINAL THOUGHTS


A story of struggle, triumph, glory, and finding her own musical voice is on full display in Aretha Franklin’s life with the movie Respect. Director Liesl Tommy’s latest film takes a cinematic examination into the life and times of the famed singer, presenting her rise to fame and inner turmoil on full display as well as her popular musical tunes. While the movie does struggle to find its rhythm within a standard biopic framing as well as bloated runtime and incomplete story threads, the film still manage to be quite entertaining, especially with the feature’s visual presentation (costumes, set decorations, and hair / make-up), the musical numbers, interesting narrative points, and solid performances, especially Hudson. Personally, I did like this movie. Was it good? Yes. Was a very “paint-by-numbers” endeavor? Yes. Could it have been better? Yes. Was it enjoyable and entertaining? Yes. Taking away from the film itself, Respect does earn a lot of positives from me, and Hudson was stellar as Franklin. I just think that the film needed to be better handled in a few areas. Still, the movie is worth the price to seeing it, which is why I would give the film favorable “recommended” as I’m sure that it will want to see by moviegoers who grew up with Franklin’s popular hits. At its lowest, I would say that the movie is solid “Rent It”. It definitely deserves to be seeing at least once. All in all, Respect is very much a standard biopic drama that is rough around its edges, but still manages to conjure up musical magic to help elevate the feature. Thus, in that regard, Respect manages to be a good (not stellar) biographical drama into the legendary Queen of Soul’s life.

3.6 Out of 5 (Recommended / Rent It)

 

Released On: August 13th, 2021
Reviewed On: September 8th, 2021

Respect  is 145 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, strong language including racial epithets, violence, suggestive material, and smoking