Biopics have long been a crowd favorite. From the 1985 Best Picture winner Amadeus to the modern classic The Social Network, audiences are enamored by the idea of watching a biographical tale unfold on the big screen and seeing figures they love (or loathe). In recent years, there’s been a surge in a specific subgenre of the biopic; the musical. Seeing the blockbuster success of movies like Bohemian Rhapsody, it seems like studios are quickly chasing that glory by making as many musical biopics as they can. Flash-forward to 2021 and we have yet another installment within this subcategory of film, Respect.
Written by Tracey Scott Wilson, in her first screenplay for the big screen, and directed by Liesl Tommy, the film follows the usual biopic formula that most audiences have become all too familiar with by kicking off with Aretha Franklin during her years as a child prodigy. Spending most of her time singing for her father in his church’s choir, or for his guests at his seemingly frequent house parties for such names as Sam Cooke, Martin Luther King Jr, and Dinah Washington, young Aretha is shown to already be encountering some struggles within her life. After spending a few quick scenes setting up Franklin’s childhood, like most biopics, the film flashes forward a few years, where we are greeted by Jennifer Hudson in an incredible scene, which quickly showcases her immense vocal and acting talent.
This is where the film really feels like it begins, introducing us to Franklin at a more mature age as she begins to show interest in new areas of life, such as the civil rights movement taking place during the early 1960s. Unfortunately, this is a plot point that is quickly forgotten as the film almost immediately falls into an all too familiar rhythm as it resorts to the same biopic rule set that we know all too well by now. Throughout the film’s lengthy runtime of 145 minutes, it constantly feels as if it is running through a checklist of rules that have, apparently, been set for musical biopics to follow. Start at early childhood? Check. Have an argument over a musical contract before signing? Check. Show the horrors of abusive relationships? Check. Show the recordings of big hits before fading into live performances of them? Check. You name it, the film’s got it.
What this ultimately comes down to is an extremely familiar screenplay that, unfortunately, plays it too safe. While Respect does explore some rather dark themes and some terrible aspects of Franklin’s life, namely her abusive relationship with Ted White (portrayed by Marlon Wayans) and her inevitable moments of substance abuse, the screenplay never digs its claws into what this was really like for Franklin. Because of this, the film feels extremely surface level and seems as though it brushes over a lot of key moments in Franklin’s life.
With that said, Respect isn’t all bad. As mentioned, Jennifer Hudson gives quite a great performance as Aretha Franklin, showcasing her vocal talent as well as her acting range. Easily the highlight of the film, Hudson elevates the musical scenes of Franklin writing or performing her tunes with her incredible talent. Never feeling like an impersonation of Franklin, it seems as though Hudson has injected a lot of herself into this role, which adds a nice spin to the performance. As well as Jennifer Hudson, the supporting cast are all quite good in the film as well, namely Forest Whitaker as Aretha’s father, C.L. Franklin, who brings an interesting dynamic to the journey that Franklin goes on throughout the film to truly find her voice in the world. The film’s main message of finding your voice isn’t truly showcased until we reach the film’s finale, which recreates the opening to Aretha Franklin’s incredible, live gospel album Amazing Grace.
Sadly this catharsis isn’t enough to elevate the film as a whole, leaving Respect as another painfully by-the-book biopic that barely scratches the surface of Aretha Franklin’s life. So much of the film glosses over the big moments within Franklin’s life and never really adds any true weight to the story. Whether it’s her relationships, her interest in the civil rights movement, or her religious beliefs, by the end of the film we never truly understand who Franklin was outside of her music. Little glimpses are scattered throughout the film, but at 145 minutes the film is not as informative or effective as it should be and leaves much to be desired.
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