Release Date(s)2021 (November 9, 2021)
Studio(s)MGM/United Artists (Universal Pictures)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B
It’s tough in a two or three-hour film to cover the entire life of an actual person. Movies condense and use dramatic license to tell their stories. The best ones focus on some form of personal adversity, whether it’s going against powerful fascist forces to do the right thing (Schindler’s List), overcoming physical disability to achieve great scientific progress (The Theory of Everything), or standing up for one’s convictions at great cost (Ali). In Respect, a glossy overview of the life of entertainer Aretha Franklin, the focus is on how a talented woman finds her voice musically, politically, and personally.
The film traces Franklin’s church-based childhood in 1950s Detroit through the turbulent civil rights era of the mid to late 1960s to 1972, when she recorded the best-selling album of her career. We see her first as an extraordinarily talented child (Skye Dakota Turner) trotted out by her preacher father, C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), to sing in his church on Sundays and at his parties on Saturday nights. Proud of his daughter, C.L. is also opportunistic in using her to enhance his stature. During one of his parties, she’s raped by a party guest. Soon, sh’s further traumatized by the death of her mother (Audra McDonald).
As a young woman (now played by Jennifer Hudson), Aretha marries Ted White (Marlon Wayans), an elegant man with an unctuous charm and a somewhat unsavory side, very much against her father’s wishes. Her hoped-for idyllic marriage turns out to be far from it. Her contract with Columbia Records results in several albums but no breakthrough hits, which Aretha craves. She signs with Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron), who pushes her career in a new direction, taking her to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where the musicians help her find her musical groove.
Shuttling back and forth between Aretha’s public performances and private life, the film portrays an artist developing a sound all her own that combines her gospel background with a natural feel for soul. But her personal life is in shambles. Ted, who insisted on becoming her manager, is ill-equipped to handle her burgeoning career and holds her back with poor business decisions and missed opportunities. Spousal abuse is not absent but is not dwelled upon. She also has confrontations with and jealousy from her sisters, a serious alcohol problem, and an arrogance that puts loved ones at a distance.
Director Liesl Tommy shows Aretha as a survivor—strong and determined, rather than beaten down. Though her victimization is twofold—by a father who feels he owns her voice and can use it to his own advantage and by a physically violent husband who also wants to profit from her talent—she moves forward, determined to forge her own destiny.
Jennifer Hudson is an excellent fit as the Queen of Soul, and manages to channel the legendary singer through movement, speech pattern, and singing style. Hudson sings all of the songs live. There’s no pre-recording, which is the customary way of filming musical numbers. This allows Hudson to be spontaneous and fresh, conveying the excitement of live performance. With period-appropriate make-up, costumes, and hairstyles to complete the picture, she provides an authentic portrayal of Franklin. As a young woman, she’s soft-spoken and bows her head slightly when she speaks, suggesting deference and shyness. Later, when she’s more confident, her gaze is often challenging, as if to say, “Don’t mess with me, I’m Aretha Franklin!”
One of the best scenes takes place in Muscle Shoals, where Aretha and the musicians, all white, seem an unlikely combination. Yet the musicians’ ability to improvise and find a beat and an approach that works for the singer leads to success, and we feel the joy in the studio when they strike pay dirt.
Scenes in which Aretha gets involved with the civil rights movement are more sketchy. Aside from a scene with Martin Luther King, Jr. (Gilbert Glenn Brown) in which she expresses her desire to be a part of the movement, we mostly hear about her work through dialogue, not visuals. If this was a significant pursuit of Franklin, it’s given minimum screen time, more of a footnote than an integral part of her life.
Concert scenes are excitingly staged as Aretha, wearing elegant gowns and bathed in spotlights, sings to cheering, sold-out crowds. These scenes capture the thrill of a live performance and convey the connection the singer had with audiences. The film ends with Franklin recording the live gospel album Amazing Grace in 1972.
The end credits sequence features the real Aretha Franklin performing (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors tribute to Carole King along with still photos of Franklin at various points in her career.
Like many show biz biopics, Respect chronicles the hazards and difficulties of making it in show business, and the film is not without its cliches. Hudson’s unwavering performance keeps the film on track and the viewer transfixed.
Featuring 1080p High Definition resolution, Respect is presented on Blu-ray in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio. The color palette is somewhat muted, giving the film a natural look. Gowns are glamorous, not garish. Costumes and jewelry details are sharp, with individual stones in jewelry and sequins and embroidery detail on the gowns nicely delineated. Flesh tones are pleasant. Hairstyles for both women and men reflect the periods portrayed. Blacks are rich and deep. Director Leisl Tommy is fond of lens flares and there are several, with light sources shining directly into the camera lens. This is fine in concert scenes, but distracting in off-stage moments. The picture, overall, is crisp and sharp.
The soundtrack is English Dolby Atmos. Alternative soundtracks are French 5.1 Dolby Audio and DVS (Descriptive Video Service). Optional subtitles include English SDH, Spanish, and French. Dialogue is sharp and precise throughout. Jennifer Hudson’s manner of speaking becomes increasingly self-assured as the character of Aretha develops. Marc Maron’s Jerry Wexler has a distinct “New Yawk” accent. The Dolby Atmos track is at its best in the rousing church and concert scenes, with worshippers and concert audiences, respectively, amen-ing or cheering. The vocals are crisp. In the Muscle Shoals sequence, Aretha doodles at the piano, trying to get into a comfortable groove. As her confidence builds, her voice gets stronger and more assertive. Ambient party guest chatter in C.L. Franklin’s home is well balanced with dialogue. The most exciting song from a sound point-of-view is Respect, with Aretha and her back-up singers raising the roof.
Bonus material in this Blu-ray/DVD combo pack includes five brief behind-the-scenes featurettes. A Digital code is also included on a paper insert within the package.
The Making of Respect (7:20) – Director Leisl Tommy refers to Respect as the “real story about a woman and her own struggles.” Franklin was searching for her own authenticity. She brought her church background into popular music. We see the director speaking with extras during a church scene. The film is intended not to imitate but to recapture Aretha Franklin’s messages and love. Actors Audra McDonald, Mary J. Blige (as Dinah Washington), Forest Whitaker, and Marlon Wayans and screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson offer comments about the production. “Aretha’s legacy plumbs the depths and highs of humanity.”
Becoming Aretha (4:42) – Aretha Franklin recognized that Jennifer Hudson had a tenderness and a gift and responded to it. Hudson met Franklin and felt tremendous responsibility to be true to her legacy. Hudson worked with movement and voice coaches in pre-production to capture the distinctive speech patterns that Franklin inherited from her father. Hudson also learned how to play the piano and sings all of the songs in the film live. “Jennifer is like a sponge; she just absorbs.”
Capturing a Legacy (3:49) – The film shows how Aretha Franklin healed people with her music. Director Leisl Tommy has a background in theater and was attentive to detail, making sure production design, costumes, and props were all period-accurate. Tommy speaks with extras representing a concert audience, setting the mood and explaining why the audience is so moved.
From Muscle Shoals (2:57) – Jennifer Hudson notes that early in her career, Franklin was trying to find her voice. In Muscle Shoals, “she was the producer, the writer, and the voice behind it all.” She was surrounded by musicians who were able to vibe. Musical instruments, microphones, and recording consoles replicated what was used in 1967-1968. Spooner Oldham, who had played piano on original Muscle Shoals sessions, recorded all of the music used in the film. According to Hudson, the time in Muscle Shoals was “when Aretha Franklin stepped up and owned it.”
Exploring the Design of Respect (3:37) – Director Leisl Tommy pitched her idea of what the look of Respect should be. Costumes and make-up are authentic to the period. Costume designer Clint Ramos strove to find a balance between the glamorous Aretha Franklin and her private life, and what she wore through the decades. Every costume is hand made, hand sewn, hand cut, and hand sequined to look like they did in the 1960s. Production designer Ina Mayhew describes her favorite set, Aretha’s Detroit home. Her father was very popular and lived in a large house that reflected the taste of a Black family. Mayhew describes sets as “living, breathing things.”
Though Respect may not be the definitive account of Franklin’s life, the screenplay’s period touches, uniformly first-rate acting, and spot-on performance by Jennifer Hudson make it a thrilling journey through the life of a pop music icon.
- Dennis Seuling