Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | August 12th, 2021
Respect (Liesl Tommy, 2021) 1½ out of 4 stars.
The great Aretha Franklin (1942-2018), or the “Queen of Soul,” as she was so rightfully dubbed, not only ruled the charts in her prime, leaving a lasting legacy of hits like “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” but overcame her share of obstacles on her way to the top. Like so many artists before and after, she battled demons both internal and external, eventually conquering them enough to triumph in spite of them. Her cinematic biography then should, in theory, make for engaging viewing if told with even a modicum of skill. Sadly, that is not the case in Respect, from director Liesl Tommy, here making her feature-film debut. Saddled with a muddled and overlong script – by Tracey Scott Wilson, from a story by Callie Khouri (showrunner of Hulu’s Nashville series) – the movie never does justice to its subject, except for a few fleeting moments that remind us of what might have been. Aretha deserved far better.
Jennifer Hudson (Sandy Wexler) plays the lead, and while she certainly has the voice for the part, as an actress she is not given nearly enough to do. Her Aretha is distressingly inert, and even if this is by design to show Franklin’s growth over the years, passive characters do not compelling drama make. It’s odd to watch the events unfold onscreen, many of them on paper no doubt quite powerful, and feel very little. Whether it’s the constant exposition of everyone telling us exactly how they feel (strangely coupled with elliptical cuts that leave much unexplained), or the inability to decide which scenes are more important than others (giving everything equal force), there is no rhythm to the affair, no narrative give and take to lead us forward. As a result, the entire movie feels odd in its weightlessness. Stuff happens. Noted.
There are nevertheless some sequences that sparkle, and they all center around music (as one would hope they might). The first is when Aretha, finally free of her domineering preacher father (Forest Whitaker, The Forgiven), records “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” with the band in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, that would continue to play with her as she rose to the top. We watch, with a genuine frisson of excitement, as Hudson finds her way through the song, the other musicians layering riffs beneath. Starting and stopping, they navigate their way towards something new. This is why we tune into films like this, to witness the act of creation, hopefully anchored in a poignant dramatization of the real-life issues. Later, we get something similar with the title tune, though it is rushed and not nearly as gripping.
Respect takes us from childhood to 1972, when Aretha recorded “Amazing Grace,” a live gospel album (subject of the eponymous 2019 documentary) that would become her bestseller. In between, there is sexual abuse, physical abuse, heartache, heartbreak and a whole lot of religion. The ensemble cast includes plenty of solid performers, among them Marc Maron (Netflix’s GLOW series), Audra McDonald (Hello Again) and Marlon Wayans, Naked), as well as the aforementioned Whitaker. All the ingredients are therefore present for a comprehensive look at what made Aretha special. Instead, as with so much in this tedious treatment, we are merely told the why of it, rather than shown. Not much respect at all.