Written by Patrick Hao
Genre and tropes can be a beautiful thing. They become tropes because emotionally and story-wise they work like gangbusters. But Respect is so devoted to the tropes of the music biopic that it starts becoming incredulous. It’s hackneyed to compare a music biopic of this ilk to the masterful skewering of the genre, Walk Hard, but it’s kind of hard not to.
All the tropes are here, this time within the framework of “The Queen of Soul,” Aretha Franklin’s life and career. There’s the shameless cameos of real-life figures (“There’s your uncle Sam (Cooke). There’s your Uncle Duke (Ellington).”), the music montages, and the demons. The movie even has the gall to have a character say to Aretha, “Don’t let the demons get a hold of you.”
Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin, a choice that Franklin herself supposedly made before her passing in 2018. The choice is obvious and safe but is sunk by the fact that Hudson doesn’t have the magnetic presence or charisma of Franklin herself – a plot point of Dreamgirls, the role that won Hudson an Oscar. Hudson is a terrific singer for sure, but it is rude of the movie to play in full Aretha Franklin’s performance at Carole King’s Kennedy Center Honors show during the end credits, spotlighting the disparity in charisma of the two performers.
Respect takes the traditional approach of a music biopic covering Franklin’s childhood to her great Amazing Grace concert in 1973. In between the film is buoyed by strong supporting performances such as Forest Whitaker as Franklin’s domineering father, Marlon Wayans (who continues to churn out strong supporting performances) as Franklin’s even more domineering husband, and Audra McDonald as Franklin’s troubled mother. The supporting cast chews scenery, allowing them to have fun in their performances. Wayans seems to relish in playing suave sexiness who can turn to the embodiment of toxic masculinity on a dime. Hudson plays Franklin with too much, for the lack of better word, respect, which stifles her performance.
The film jumps from event to event, eventually falling into a tiring pattern of trauma and music that becomes repetitive and exhausting. The film, itself, is too centered on how other people affect Franklin rather than on Franklin, which may be a comment on the culture of the time. But, for a film whose arc is predicated on Franklin gaining her own agency, it’s deflating to have two acts devoted to such just for the third act to see that as a problem in relation to alcoholism and trauma.
Adapted for the screen by stage director Liesl Tommy, Respect serves as her directorial debut and is adequately directed though it lacks any sense of formal invention or verve. Musical performance scenes are shot well but do not have the energy or spontaneity of a real live performance. The sections that have the true inspiration is the music making aspect. The scene in which Franklin goes down to Alabama and develops I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You) with the Muscle Shoals band or how she modifies the Otis Redding version of Respect to her own defining version are the few moments this film actually comes alive because it’s the only moments in the film that portray Aretha as the genius that she was. Everything else just feels like dutiful recreation.
All the problems that Respect has do not necessarily make it a bad film. In fact, Respect is an incredibly average movie. The overall problems are related to the obedience to a genre checklist that is feeling more and more obsolete. Besides wanting a jukebox musical featuring Franklin’s songs, I’m hard pressed to figure out what makes her story any different than some of the music biopics out there. At least Respect never puts forward a compelling argument as to what that difference could be.
Frankly, musicians, even the great ones, are boring.
Respect is now in wide theatrical release.