An accidental forced march for Aretha Franklin
In a Hollywood landscape dominated by intellectual property-based projects that entertain (or just amuse) by applying (or slightly reversing) an established formula over and over again, the modern musical biopic sometimes feels like the cheapest drug in the world. Marlet. These films are often little more than glorified brand management exercises. Between crowd-pleasing musical numbers that also serve as respectful fan service, the period-clad actors distribute estate-approved biographical information to a regular clip. Everything from music selection to production design is designed to milk viewers’ prefabricated nostalgia. At this point, there is little difference between how the industry approaches a legendary artist’s song catalog and how it adapts a comic book.
Respect, the last post-Bohemian Rhapsody biographical drama, proves no different by turning the story of Aretha Franklin, played by Jennifer Hudson, into an overloaded highlight reel. Tracey Scott Wilson’s screenplay cuts back two decades of Franklin’s life, from his early years singing in his father’s church choir to recording amazing Grace, to a series of historical boxes to be checked systematically. We watch her go from choir to Columbia Records, then we watch her fight for the label and under the cruel direction of her father, then we watch her sign to Atlantic Records where she becomes the queen of soul. Throughout the film, our emotional investment in this journey goes without saying.
Along the way, Respect shamelessly traffics many well-spit biopics shots by Walk hard. Famous people introduce themselves by their full name. The casting delivers an explanatory dialogue that awkwardly offers or reiterates the historical context. Montages of thankless struggle and glorious success are blurred. There is a third act “fucking dark period”. Respect is so closely tied to the Dewey Cox model that a potentially dangerous “trope search” drinking game seems inevitable. Franklin’s real life was obviously filled with big-screen drama, but Wilson and TV-trained director Liesl Tommy take a holistic, arrhythmic approach that deals with major life events like soapy episodes or water for the pop-psych mill.
Naturally, Respect relies on the whole to animate the material. Sometimes they do. Hudson stumbles over some of her dialogue, but she typically nails the musical sequences by infusing her own personality into Franklin’s work, elevating her performance from impression to interpretation; she brings songs like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Amazing Grace” to life, and it’s easy to imagine those inspiring moments to sing along to. Forest Whitaker, on the other hand, finds only two fads for Franklin’s father: cautious kindness and boastful anger. Among the supporting cast, Marlon Wayans shines as Franklin’s abusive husband Ted White, conveying a bottomless pit of self-loathing and insecurity. Meanwhile, Marc Maron brings a zesty energy to the table by playing Jerry Wexler as if he’s Franklin’s spiky cheerleader, and Mary J. Blige steals the film for a scene as an early career mentor. by Franklin, Dinah Washington. All the actors of Respect clearly strive to invest their scenes with genuine emotion, which only brings out even more the mundane dialogue and awkward conflicts they face.
Part of the problem lies in RespectIt’s obsequious tone, with the way the movie treats Franklin so royally that she feels more like an icon than a person. Wilson’s screenplay weaves a potentially compelling thread by structuring Franklin’s story around the domineering men who rule her: freeing herself first from her father and then from her husband, she must face the trauma resulting from her freedom. Yet much of that concept dies on the vine because Franklin, as portrayed, is less a character in his own right and more a vehicle for his music. Attempts to fill her personality by highlighting her true civil rights, such as her friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. and avowed support for Angela Davis, are sketchy at best. Respect also makes Franklin so much larger than life that the weak spots in its story never feel anchored in dramatic reality. His descent into alcoholism seems particularly superficial, communicated in the broadest possible terms before being quickly resolved. The film defines Franklin either by his voice or by his pain, and such binaristic terms undermine and ultimately simplify a complex life.
Fans are likely to eat all of this, if only for the musical performances. But the best footage in the movie points to an alternate path, perhaps a better one. After Aretha signed with Atlantic, she traveled to Rick Hall’s FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where she wrote “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” with a session band. . Although a bit uneven, the scene successfully captures the slow and bumpy process of artistic collaboration, in which good ideas are spontaneously introduced and trust organically develops between talented strangers. Compare that to the cheesy scene in which Franklin is too suddenly struck with inspiration to compose the film’s title song. Or with a performance of “Think” that is almost delivered to White after she can’t take his violence anymore, with a close-up of Hudson’s face as she sings “Freedom!” Or with the scene where a woman stops Franklin in a hotel lobby to tell him that she feels like she’s singing straight to her. Too bad Respect prefers hitting notes than playing music.