Two years ago, the documentary “Amazing Grace” showcased Aretha Franklin remarkable 1972 two-night stand at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. It’s a soul stirring window into Franklin’s vocal ability as she caresses and stretches the notes of the songs to maximum effect.
A new film, “Respect,” starring Jennifer Hudson and now playing in theatres, broadens the scope, detailing Franklin’s life from her beginnings, singing in her father’s church, to the height of her fame.
We first meet Aretha as a ten-year-old (Sky Dakota Turner) phenom, blessed with a beautiful voice. “You have a talent,” her Baptist minister father Clarence (Forest Whitaker) says, “they call genius.” She’s ten, says a friend, but her voice is going on thirty. Her guiding light is mother Barbara (Audra McDonald), who tells her, “Singing in sacred and you shouldn’t do it because somebody wants you to. What’s important is that you are treated with dignity and respect.”
Despite that advice, her father controls every aspect of her life. Using his connections, Rev. Franklin secures a recording contact with music producer John Hammond (Tate Donovan) at Columbia Records. Four low-selling albums of jazz and blues standards follow as she struggles to find her voice on vinyl.
The climb to the top of the charts came with advice from a legend, Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige), who told her, “Honey, find the songs that move you. Until you do that, you ain’t going nowhere,” and a new manager (and love interest) in the form of Ted White (Marlon Wayans). Taking the career reigns from Franklin’s father, White breaks ranks with Columbia, and gets a new record deal and a new sound with producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron).
As Franklin becomes known as the Queen of Soul, she and White struggle with personal demons that threaten to sidetrack her rise to superstardom.
First and foremost, “Respect” is a tribute to the genius of Aretha Franklin and the talent of Jennifer Hudson. Franklin left an indelible mark on several generation and styles of music, and her life’s work is well represented here, from her roots in the church, to her genre-bending chart toppers and the civil rights activism that defined her life off stage.
Hudson is given ample opportunity to showcase Franklin’s vocal stylings, and does so with a voice that sounds heaven sent. As a rousing jukebox musical “Respect” succeeds spectacularly well.
It’s in the telling of Franklin’s life that the movie hits a few sour notes. There is a lot of ground to cover, from alcoholism and racism to sexism and becoming pregnant at the age of 12, it’s a complicated story told in fits and starts, wedged between musical numbers.
The film’s early scenes, featuring the wonderful Skye Dakota Turner as the ten-year-old “Ree,” are nicely developed and paint a vivid picture of Franklin’s young life. It’s when “Respect” adopts the Wikipedia bullet point approach to quickly cover a lot of ground that the movie loses some of its dramatic thrust.
“Respect” skims the surface of a long, interesting life—the story ends rather abruptly in 1972 with the recording of Franklin’s landmark “Amazing Grace” gospel album—but presents a rousing tribute to Franklin’s lifeblood, the music.