September 09, 2021
Jennifer Hudson plays the soul legend, but this biopic reduces the complexity of her upbringing and artistry to corny life lessons
Respect review – one-note Aretha Franklin chronicle follows every biopic beat
At one moment in this very respectful film, a worried supporting character says: “I can’t do this any more.” Maybe none of us can. The spoofability of music biopics has been a known quantity for so long that perhaps, through some quirk of the collective creative unconscious, they have just reabsorbed the cliches, reinforced and clarified them as a proven formula for success. But what if the troubled lives of pop icons aren’t like this? What if they can’t be reduced to flashback abuse vignettes, recording studio rows, early-success montages of album and magazine covers, marital breakdown crises, booze nightmares and final redemption scenes before the final credits over which, in time-honoured biopic style, we see footage of the less conventionally attractive real person?
Jennifer Hudson tries her hardest with the role of soul legend Aretha Franklin, but there is quite frankly a lot of hammy and inert acting going on here. Scene follows scene and facial expression follows facial expression with a bass-drum clunk, transitions which might work better on Broadway. Having said this, Hudson is not supported by a script that skates over the difficult stuff and acknowledges the unhappiness and pain in her life in only the most generalised and evasive way. We see Aretha as a little girl, sleeping happily in her bedroom in the family home in Detroit, Michigan in the 1950s. Her dad, the renowned minister CL Franklin – a role to which Forest Whitaker lends his formidable presence – is in the habit of actually waking her up, and making her come out to the living room in her nightgown and sing rather adult songs for his somewhat louche party guests: Ella Fitzgerald’s My Baby Likes to Bebop. The movie suggests that one of these guests almost certainly abused the young Aretha.
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