aretha franklin chose jennifer hudson to play her in a dramatic feature film based on her life, and hudson returns that leap of faith by respectfully honoring the late singer’s towering legacy. A powerful tale of self-actualization spanning 20 formative years, the biographical film Deliesl Tommy is also an intimate gift of love, rich in complexity, spirituality, black pride, and feminist courage rooted not in didactic discourse but in authentic experience. the timeless music, of course, is the motivating force, but it’s the personal struggle behind it that makes the story so moving.
Tommy, a respected South African theater and television director who makes a confident move into roles, doesn’t escape the conventions of biodrama, but injects each scene with genuine sentiment that elevates the material, as much as hudson’s mighty . the tubes opened in song. This is arguably the star’s most persuasively engaged film performance since Dreamgirls, alive not only in the musical interludes but also in the frequently combative interactions with those closest to Aretha. The beating heart of MGM/UA’s entertaining release combined with Franklin’s multi-generational fan base should ensure a receptive audience after its world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival.
More narrowly focused on its time frame than the genius of Nat Geo’s recent anthology season: Aretha, starring Cynthia Erivo, Respect begins with their pre-teen years in 1952 Detroit and ends with their live recording from the church’s gospel album, amazing grace, two decades later. Playwright Tracey Scott Wilson’s screenplay charts Franklin’s initially hesitant rise to fame, as expected, but pays equal attention to blackness, family and church, three foundational pillars in Franklin’s formation as an artist.
What sets the story apart from most musical biographies is the fact that Aretha (played as a child by Skye Dakota Turner) was directly exposed from an early age to influential artists considered family friends. They included Sam Cooke, Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson and Dinah Washington, the latter played with fierce dominance by Mary J. blige in a pivotal scene of brutally frank tutoring. A child prodigy, Aretha was regularly dragged out of bed by her Baptist minister father, the Rev. c.l. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), to sing at late-night parties filled with sophisticated guests. “She is 10 years old, but her voice goes to 30, honey,” says one of them.
While her parents separated early in her life due to C.L.’s volatile and womanizing temperament, her barbarian mother (Audra McDonald), who was also an accomplished singer, was a great inspiration. In a beautiful scene during a weekend visit, McDonald’s wraps her heavenly voice around “I’ll see you” as mother and daughter catch up on the piano. But the shock of Barbara’s sudden death threatens to silence Aretha. Her closeness to her sisters, Carolyn (Hailey Kilgore) and Erma (Saycon Sengbloh), is portrayed as another anchoring source of female solidarity, a buffer against cl.l.’s expectation of patriarchal appeasement.
by the time the central role changes mid-song from turner to hudson, aretha is already a mass of contradictions. Having performed as a solo artist both at her father’s church and on the Baptist touring circuit, she has the poise and command to sing in front of large audiences. and her father’s friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. (Gilbert Glenn Brown), a man she knows as “Uncle Martin,” fuels her desire for social justice. but c.l. she remains hyper-controlling, about her participation in civil rights protests, her career choices, even her love life. This last element is complicated by her refusal to name the father of her two children, the first born to her when she was not yet 13 years old, a trauma that haunts her at all times.
Her recording years in Columbia in the early ’60s produced a string of albums, but no hits, as she attempts to make her mark as a jazz artist. When she finally breaks free of her father’s iron grip, she is with another dominant man, Ted White (Marlon Wayans), a charmer who becomes her husband and manager. First to trust Aretha’s unerring instincts about her sound is producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron, Fantastic); Once he moves her to Atlantic Records and puts her in an Alabama studio with the band Muscle Shoals, her hits start rolling in.
A scene where Aretha takes over during the recording of “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and transforms an ordinary song into a raw emotional statement demonstrates her brilliant intuition as a self-taught musician. Equally exciting is a late-night piano jam with her sisters singing backing vocals, during which she takes the film’s title track by Otis Redding and turns it into the supercharged hit that would come to define it.
These musical interludes and his insights into the process by which a great song finds its distinctive shape are enormously uplifting. hudson’s voice is electrifying, he sticks to the template but not to the point of limiting imitation. another highlight is “(you make me feel like a) natural woman”, performed on stage in detroit after dr. king presents aretha with an honor for her contribution to fundraising for the civil rights movement. Similarly, her heartbreaking rendition of the king’s favorite hymn, “Take my hand, precious lord,” at his funeral.
Where the film starts to bog down a bit, making its 2+ hour runtime feel sore, is in the unraveling of Aretha’s marriage that Ted becomes more abusive, partly in response to his increasingly marginal role. in his carrer. Perhaps it’s a touch on the nose that Aretha’s epiphany of emancipation comes with the refrain of “freedom” as he sings “think” at the Olympia in Paris. but the song still rules.
The narrative loses some fluidity in the later sections after Aretha begins a relationship with tour manager Ken Cunningham (Albert Jones). Despite the stability of finally being with a man who supports her emotionally, her excessive drinking begins to cause friction with her family, including a fight with her sisters. but this comes almost out of the blue, like an afterthought of the filmmakers suddenly remembering to reveal some character flaws for balance.
Wilson’s script spends very little time on the common thread and relies on vague nods to Aretha’s demons, both personal and political, following MLK’s murder and the FBI’s arrest of Angela Davis in 1970. There are A wobbly episodic quality in developments such as Aretha skipping concert dates and appearing drunk on stage, with disastrous results at a Georgia show.
It’s a credit to both the filmmakers and Hudson, however, that the film endures those wobbly passages and never loses our investment in the woman it so clearly reveres: a character drawn as larger-than-life and fragile. ending the recording of amazing grace at the new temple missionary baptist church in los angeles was a smart choice, serving to tie together multiple narrative threads, as well as tying the story to the music that is inseparable from the black experience in america.
The recording project reconnects Aretha with an important figure from her childhood, James Cleveland (Tituss Burgess), the former music director of her father’s church; allows him to assert himself with the contentious but affable Wexler for creative control; and returns her to the purifying music she grew up with, healing family rifts in the process. Anyone who isn’t moved by the pain and passion Hudson channels on the album’s title track must be stoned. rumbles from her like silent thunder.
Alongside his starring role, Whitaker does a standout job as the charismatic preacher, a proud and difficult man capable of toughness as well as love, while Wayans effectively plays Ted as suave and seductive but ultimately weak. . Tommy’s skill with actors is evident in the warmth and vitality he brings to even the smallest of female roles, including Kilgore and Sengbloh as Aretha’s sisters, McDonald as their beloved mother, Kimberly Scott as their grandmother, and Heather Headley as lover. from cl.l., the singer clara ward. Fresh off her Broadway debut playing another musical legend as a child in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, Turner brings a poignant innocence and a large, reverse-proportioned voice to young Aretha.
The film has an engaging sheen thanks to Kramer Morganthau’s sharp cinematography and the lush detail and bold colors of Ina Mayhew’s mid-century production design. But the most eye-catching element is Clint Ramos’ wardrobe, in particular a series of fabulous dresses and statement jewelry that showcase the styles of black women of the time at their most glamorous. the musical production of stephen bray and jason michael webb is also top notch. The closing credits display a litany of awards and honors received by Franklin in images and photographs of her over the decades that will warm the heart of anyone who has treasured her music. her respect gives the queen of soul the majestic treatment she deserves.