★★★★ - SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
- Jennifer Hudson exhilarating as Aretha Franklin in ‘Respect’ -
"Respect” has everything you could hope for in a musical biopic. It has a good story and great songs and, best of all, it has someone in the lead role who can put those songs over.
Jennifer Hudson may not be Aretha Franklin, but that’s only because nobody is. Hudson comes close enough. With other actors in other biopics, viewers have to make allowances and to consciously work to believe that, say, Renee Zellweger is Judy Garland and that, for some weird reason, Judy can’t sing. But in “Respect,” it is the easiest thing in the world — and a joyful thing — to accept Hudson as Aretha.
The movie tells the story of Franklin’s childhood up through the first dozen or so years of her long career. She grew up a musical prodigy in a well-connected family. Her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was based in Detroit and was on close terms with the worlds of music and politics — Martin Luther King Jr. was a personal friend. From an early age, Aretha would sing in front of luminaries such as Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige) at her father’s parties.
Liesl Tommy’s sensitive direction brings out the key moments in subtle ways, such as in the scene of Aretha’s first recording session. We see the Columbia orchestra from Aretha’s perspective, catch something tentative in Hudson’s eyes, and we realize it enough to feel it: Even for a legend like this, there was a beginning. The moment when she had to take a breath and sing her first note in a recording studio.
Aside from a privileged few among us, we don’t know Franklin’s private self, but Hudson seems less guarded than the Aretha we know from stage and television. Yet perhaps Hudson’s gentler portrayal is more a reflection of the real person, rather than the persona. It certainly took the singer a long time to assert herself with her father, and when she got married the first time, she chose a man who apparently was even more domineering.
C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker) emerges as a complex character — overconfident and full of advice, most but not all of it wrong. Aretha’s first husband, Ted White (Marlon Wayans), by contrast, is presented as a pretty unambiguously frightening figure. Tommy doesn’t have to show us much to convince us of this. Just by putting the camera on Hudson’s face as Wayans talks, and letting us see the depths of her fear, we understand the ongoing potential for violence.
At its best, and it’s often at its best, “Respect” gives us the exhilaration of being present at the creation. There’s a strong scene in which Aretha and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section gradually come up with the arrangement for “I Never Loved a Man,” her first big hit. This is soon topped by the sequence in which she sits at the piano in the middle of the night and reconceives what had been an Otis Redding song: “Respect.” What follows — a live performance of the song at Madison Square Garden — is the stuff of goose bumps.
The screenplay, by Tracey Scott Wilson (story by Callie Khouri), plays out chronologically, but in several places it skillfully skips over information and then returns when that information becomes necessary. It’s a nice way to inject mystery and keep the audience guessing.
“Respect” has trouble ending. Because it doesn’t aspire to tell the story of her whole life, it has to end somewhere, and the place it chooses feels a little arbitrary. Then again, that hardly matters. This isn’t a movie we watch waiting for it to end.
“Respect” gets Franklin up to age 30, but if the director and Hudson had wanted to take another few hours to get Franklin to the end of her life, at age 76, that would have been just fine.
- Mick LaSalle, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Respect is now playing at Light House Cinema!