Released: 19th August
Seen: 14th November
A little over two years ago I talked about the documentary Amazing Grace, a film that documented the recording of the greatest selling gospel album of all time by the legendary Aretha Franklin. At that time we had heard about a biopic being made with Jennifer Hudson taking on the role of the legend herself and it’s hard to deny that there was some serious excitement just from that casting. That film would come to be called Respect, released earlier this year and… yep, Respect is an Aretha Franklin biopic alright, with everything that one might think of when they hear the phrase “Aretha Franklin biopic”
Respect tells the life story of Aretha Franklin (Jennifer Hudson), starting from her humble beginnings singing in church at the behest of her father C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker) and taking her through her turbulent marriage to Ted White (Marlon Wayans), her numerous hit records and her problems with drugs and alcohol. In between scenes of Aretha dealing with the hardships of her life we are blessed with performances of Aretha Franklin classics by her heir apparent Jennifer Hudson and… yeah, it’s 2 and a half hours of that.
Let’s just get the obvious praise out of the way, Jennifer Hudson was born to play Aretha Franklin and god damn it this is one of those performances that is designed to remind audiences why Jennifer Hudson is a goddamn Oscar winner who made it through Cats without a scratch on her. It’s incredible, and not just because we got a full album of Jennifer Hudson doing flawless Aretha Franklin covers (though that doesn’t hurt). It’s the kind of biopic performance that you can’t look away from, she lets the soul of Aretha Franklin completely envelop her from start to finish and that carries the entire film… thank god because without Jennifer I don’t know how watchable Respect would be.
At 2 and a half hours there is a lot of stuff crammed in here. It’s not just telling one specific story or building to one key event, it’s going from birth to big hit for no other reason than that’s what biopics do. Respect could’ve probably stopped about an hour earlier when she finally gets Ted White out of her life or maybe cut some things out to make it more about her dealing with her alcoholism (which is more of a background thing until we need her to have that one drunk performance every biopic has) but no, no it’s just rocketing through everything from the time she’s 10 until Amazing Grace. It’s… it’s every biopic you’ve ever seen, except this time it’s about Aretha Franklin.
Biopics already have a hard time working in a post Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story world where all the cliches were called out repeatedly but they have an even harder time in a post-Rocketman world where we now know you can breathe new life into this genre and make it compelling by adjusting the style to that of the performer. Aretha is a big enough talent that you could find a fresh interesting way to tell her story, but they don’t. They do the same thing that happens with every other biopic. It’s great for Jennifer, who gets all the great emotional scenes any actor could hope for and lets her deliver some of the best work of her career but it means the film is average at best and only works because they cast that lead role so perfectly.
This isn’t to say that the supporting cast of Respect isn’t also doing a good job because they are. Marlon Wayans is practically unrecognisable, Forest Whitaker fires on all cylinders. There’s a brief appearance by Audra McDonald that will make you wonder why this woman isn’t getting to be the lead in more films (seriously, she has like half a dozen Tony awards, just adapt one of those shows into a movie for her so we can get this woman the Oscar she deserves) and even Tituss Burgess gets a few scene stealing moments. It’s an impeccable supporting cast that manage to keep everything floating along, but Jennifer is what makes things work.
Respect needed a half hour cut out of it and a serious style adjustment to truly be something special, but fortunately it has the perfect lead delivering a perfect performance which helps make it worthwhile. It’s going to shock no one when Jennifer is in Awards conversations for this one, she absolutely delivers a blockbuster performance that would be defining the careers of lesser people… but this is Jennifer Hudson, a perfect blockbuster performance is merely a Tuesday for her. The film is fine, Jennifer is the one who deserves all the respect in this picture.