Aretha Franklin has rightfully earned her place as an icon, an innovator and one of the greatest singers of the 20th Century. As such, it's a pity that Respect opted to not just metaphorically hit all the standard biopic notes but make her extraordinary life almost dull.
Covering the entirety of Franklin's career would require a miniseries, so Respect stays from 1952 to 1972, going full circle in the gospel roots. Little Aretha Franklin or Ree to her family is a standout in the Franklin home, entertaining family and friends of her father Reverend C.L. Franklin (Forest Whittaker). As she grows into a woman, Aretha (Jennifer Hudson) struggles under her strict father's thumb.
He pushes Aretha into making jazz records at Columbia, but her exceptional voice can't find a place among the standards that come easily to Franklin family friends like Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige). She needs to find her own voice, metaphorically and literally.
This search is aided by her new love, Ted White (Marlon Wayans), who knows she isn't cut out to be a shadow of Fitzgerald or Washington. Albeit reluctantly, he and Franklin sign with Atlantic Records and to work with a group of white musicians. Here, she finds her own style and takes the first steps to becoming the Queen of Soul.
She also starts disintegrating personally. Ted, abusive towards Aretha, mirrors the controlling nature of C.L. Franklin but with physical force thrown in, and that's long after she was sexually molested as a child to where she had two children before she was 15 (the first pregnancy at 12). Aretha does manage to finally leave Ted, but booze and a growing diva nature take hold. Finally, after embracing all the positives and negatives of her life so far, she returns to the Faith and demonstrates that by recording her first gospel album, Amazing Grace, whose live recording was captured in a documentary as a comprise to get the album recorded. With her now at peace, we learn through text of her exceptional accomplishments post Amazing Grace.
As I watched Respect, for a good chunk of it I thought to myself, "Aretha Franklin's life couldn't have been that boring". A major flaw is Tracey Scott Wilson's script, which is filled with leaden dialogue and at times a jumbled set of plot points.
"Music will save your life," young Aretha is told, which is one of those "this is deep foreshadowing" lines that comes across as bad dialogue. One of the worst moments is when Aretha attempts to honor Washington at a performance early in her career. Washington is a surprise guest at Aretha's jazz performance, and Franklin points out she will sing a Washington standard in her honor. I don't think Franklin got through two notes before a comically enraged Blige turns up her table.
"BITCH! Don't you EVER sing the Queen's song when the Queen is in front of you!" she screams in full fury, sending Aretha fleeing the stage in tears. Immediately afterwards, Washington is offering Franklin advise on how she should follow her own music.
The whole scene is unintentionally hilarious for a variety of reasons. There's the silly dialogue. There's the oddball setup (Franklin made clear she was going to do a cover, so why Washington went bonkers is irrational). I'm not even sure what song Franklin covered, as she couldn't have gotten through perhaps even the first line before Washington turned psycho.
Then add the overtly "you need to be yourself" moments and you think how could people have looked at all this and thought any of it was good.
Somehow, despite a great subject, Respect managed to come across as almost parody which blended What's Love Got to Do With It and Ray. You had the abusive husband from the former and the dead parent coming back in a vision from the latter. One could even see a little Bohemian Rhapsody in Respect when it comes to both "this is how we created XYZ song" and a parental reconciliation before triumphing with a spectacular performance: Amazing Grace instead of Live Aid.
Other elements, like Franklin's fierce political activism, just came and went whenever the story needed some kind of jolt. The more seamy elements of child abuse also popped up in a freewheeling style, but it seemed to have little effect on Franklin save for serving as a plot device.
In the veering close to parody department there's such things as Franklin falling drunkenly off the stage or her screaming about how she has to do everything under a portrait of herself. I'd argue director Liesl Tommy could have pulled back on the obvious metaphor.
What works in Respect though is some of the performances. Hudson captures Franklin's voice both singing and speaking, and it's pretty hard not to move when you hear the power of the various songs. It is unfortunate though that Hudson when giving the dramatic moments just couldn't quite get there. She was out-acted by Wayans as the abusive, controlling Ted. The Ike to her Tina, Wayans changes both his voice and persona to create a more complicated character. Granted, he doesn't do much other than express rage but he does it well.
Whitaker also alters his voice for C.L. Franklin, and one wonders if his own character was softened a bit (the film makes no mention of his own inability to walk in the Spirit due to his own indiscretions). It's almost shameful that Audra McDonald was shunted off as Aretha's mother Barbara, though it is wonderful to hear her voice albeit briefly.
The final trouble with Respect that it is too respectful to Aretha Franklin, not allowing the full measure of this extraordinary woman to emerge. The Queen of Soul deserved better, but what we got is not bad but not as good as the subject herself.