Respect review – Aretha Franklin biopic sings the same old tune

Jennifer Hudson tries her best with a disappointingly rote retread through cliches of a well-worn genre

Every so often, usually while watching a biopic about a troubled musical genius, a film critic will be seized by a sense of futility deeper than the normal, low-burning futility that comes with the professional territory. Regardless of how specifically or how many times we catalogue the cliches of this rigid subgenre, the writers and directors upholding it continue to adhere to a faulty formula as if these plot beats had been laid out by scripture. No amount of spilled ink can stop the childhood traumas cuing up adult dysfunction in an overly tidy pop-psych equation; the cameos from famous faces announced by name to ensure everyone’s recognition; the unnerving recreations of iconic moments or works that succeed only in making viewers want to revisit the genuine article; or the intelligence-insulting postscripts implying that no one would otherwise know what became of these inescapably famous people.

This specific strain of badness has been so thoroughly analyzed and denounced – there’s a whole movie dedicated to tearing this narrative form limb from hackneyed limb – that rehashing it all once again for the new Aretha Franklin picture Respect smacks of pointlessness. Another will come to take its place in no time at all. The critical corps and the biopic menace will be locked in battle for eternity, both subsisting on the feeling of purpose imbued by this unending conflict, not unlike the Batman and Joker. And so, in that spirit of bruising, duty-bound obligation, onward.

In the leading role as the queen of soul, Jennifer Hudson comports herself as well as could be hoped considering the material she’s been given, which demands that she reinvigorate a rote character arc with her own passions. In the first act, a young Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner) flaunts her god-given gift for belting at church and withstands a mercifully omitted rape. Her parents establish themselves as totemic figures in her girlhood, her father (Forest Whitaker) a controlling taskmaster and her mother (Audra McDonald) a bastion of tender understanding. Hudson takes over as adolescence hits and she’s subjected to further unwanted male attention from a series of alcoholics and abusers, their recurrence and her efforts to break this cycle giving the film its dramatic fulcrum.

To accentuate its admiration of Franklin’s determination and resilience, Tracey Scott Wilson’s script organizes its subject’s life around the men she had to overcome at every turn. In strategy meetings with the executives at Atlantic Records, in recordings with white session musicians, in lovers’ quarrels teetering on the brink of violence, she holds her ground and refuses to be cowed. She enacts platitudes generally left somewhat figurative in a more literal capacity, a practice most glaring when the personal demons driving her to drink and desperation are referred to over and over as “her demons” by those closest to her. Self-help books about leaning in emphasize the importance of using your voice to be heard, but it never hurts for that voice to have a multi-octave range. The metaphor clicks into place too neatly, and that’s before the movie turns her biggest hit (the title track, its conception staged in one of those moldy-cheese scenes that sees inspiration hit after a few moments of pensive staring at a piano) into a thuddingly obvious anthem stating her character motivation in fortissimo terms.

The underlying intention to promote feminist empowerment could not be clearer, the moment in which an effusive stranger stops Franklin to tell her that she’s given her guidance and strength spelling that much out for us. And yet the ideological framework hasn’t been developed enough to make its point, instead defaulting to the facile assertion that a person need only decide to stop being oppressed by a patriarchal society to do so. The same behavior that would get her labeled an imperious diva shored up her authority over herself, an act she could only pull off due to the talent and magnetism she knew made her irreplaceable. Perhaps without realizing, the film posits that her fame insulated her from mistreatment, conceptualizing Franklin as a celebrity presence rather than inspecting the grounding aspects of her person.

Hudson almost rights this false step by channeling Franklin’s room-filling bigness, in both her offhanded confidence and especially the fitfully stunning musical numbers, this project’s clear raison d’etre. While it would be more expedient for Hudson to simply record a covers album and be done with it, there’s more money to be made and glory to be gained this way. The mostly-reliable bankability of the household-name biopic keeps the minor scourge alive and well, having now metastasized into a grown-up equivalent of the IP-reliant superhero cinema hinging on brand familiarity above all else. Let’s meet back here in six months or so for the same old song and dance, its new lyrics failing to disguise the recycled melodies.

  • Respect is out in the US on 13 August and in the UK on 10 September


Charles Bramesco

The GuardianTramp

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