(2021) (Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker) (PG-13)
- QUICK TAKE:
- Drama: A singer must contend with personal demons and controlling men in her life as she becomes one of the biggest stars in soul music.
It's 1952 Detroit and Aretha Franklin (SKYE DAKOTA TURNER) might only be 10-years-old, but her voice is amazing. So much so that her Baptist minister father, C.L. (FOREST WHITAKER) -- with whom she lives along with her sisters and grandmother (KIMBERLY SCOTT) -- often makes her get up from bed to entertain high profile guests -- with James Cleveland (TITUSS BURGESS) accompanying her on the piano -- at his house parties. She only occasionally gets to see her singer mom, Barbara (AUDRA McDONALD), and when that woman unexpectedly dies -- and young Aretha ends up raped by a party guest -- that throws the girl into a tailspin that will affect her for years to come.
Years later, however, Aretha (JENNIFER HUDSON), is still performing, and her dad lands her a recording contract that results in produced albums, but no hits. As a result, she ends up drawn to slick record producer Ted White (MARLON WAYANS), much to the chagrin of her sisters, Erma (SAYCON SENGBLOH) and Carolyn (HAILEY KILGORE), and the dismay of their father. Things look up when Aretha ends up in a deal with veteran record producer Jerry Wexler (MARC MARON) who pairs her with accomplished musicians, resulting in the hits she so desperately desires.
All of which results in her going on tour with road manager Ken Cunningham (ALBERT JONES) handling the logistics and becoming her lover once her marriage to Ken ends. But as her fame increases, Aretha's personal demons -- including alcoholism -- threaten to undermine her and her career.
- OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Having seen just about every music biopic of the past several decades, several things are perfectly clear. It would appear that the biggest stars of the recording industry have endured and persevered despite any number of personal traumas -- some external, some self-inflicted -- that would otherwise derail the rest of us mere mortals.
It's also likely that their success can be attributed in some part to having gone through those trials and tribulations, thus resulting in attitude calluses, if you will, that make putting up with career obstacles, setbacks, and people in the way easier to overcome music industry.
And to wrap up my spitball summary of things with which I'm not overly familiar, it proves that stories based on those who've somehow managed to sail to success with few if any bumps and bruises would make fairly boring movies since drama is directly proportional to conflict.
All of which leads us to the latest example of such a biopic, "Respect." Based on the life and times of the late, great queen of soul, Aretha Franklin, the film is a showcase for star Jennifer Hudson and features strong supporting performances from the likes of Forest Whitaker and Marc Maron and a few truly stellar moments. But it also suffers from the usual pitfalls of such flicks including that it feels somewhat episodic, what with trying to stuff so much material -- and so many songs -- into its 145-minute runtime.
The offering -- from director Liesl Tommy who works from a screenplay by Tracey Scott Wilson -- kicks off in 1952 Detroit. It's then and there that 10-year-old Aretha's (a terrific Skye Dakota Turner) well-connected Baptist minister father (Whitaker) wakes her up to entertain partygoers at his house with her stellar voice.
It's a gift she apparently inherited from her mother (Audra McDonald) who loves and supports her (there's a sweet bit where questions and answers come in song form between the two). And Barbara makes sure to tell her daughter that her father doesn't own her voice and that she shouldn't ever fear any man.
But that's before a family friend rapes her at another such party, a trauma exacerbated by the death of her mother and having to contend with an uber-controlling father. The latter continues through Aretha's formative years, including when she transitions into young adulthood (and now played by Hudson) and takes a liking to slick record producer Ted White (Marlon Wayans) who everyone in Franklin's life -- except her, of course -- recognizes will be nothing but trouble.
He helps her transition out of a steady but hit-free stint with Columbia Records over to veteran producer Jerry Wexler (Maron) who introduces Aretha to the talented session musicians at Muscle Shoals. It's then that the first magical and electric moment occurs when Franklin rearranges a song Ted found for her and makes it decidedly her own. I'll admit I'm a sucker for watching creative types improvise, and the formation of "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)" before our eyes is a goosebump-inducing thing of cinematic beauty.
The same occurs, although to a lesser extent, with the reworking of Otis Redding's title track where Aretha starts working on that in the middle of the night with her sisters (Saycon Sengbloh and Hailey Kilgore) and then transitions over to the studio session recording that. And things wrap up with the Queen singing "Amazing Grace" at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church and then footage of the real woman performing "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" at the Kennedy Center Honors during the end credits. All of which is stunning.
It's too bad that qualifier doesn't apply to the film as a whole. Mind you, it's good, but it only occasionally manages to hit those magical moments that transport one out of the movie and into an otherworldly plane where one simply marvels at incredible talent.
The rest of the flick -- while presumably respectful of the true story -- goes through the usual motions of musical biopic dramas (albeit here with moments interacting with Martin Luther King Jr. played by Gilbert Glenn Brown) and includes the usual plot trajectory of rise, fall (this time due to alcoholism, as well as emotional scar tissue left from those traumas), and eventual redemption.
All of which is anchored by Hudson's rock-solid and emotionally moving performance (not to mention her pipes that more than do justice to Franklin's recordings) and good supporting work as well as excellent tech credits (including, to no one's surprise, spot-on costume work). Good with moments of brilliance, "Aretha" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.
Reviewed August 8, 2021 / Posted August 13, 2021
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