Respect: Just a little bit of a great soul story

Aretha Franklin biopic follows familiar rhythms of the genre

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Director: Liesl Tommy
Cert: 12A
Genre: Music
Starring: Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Marc Maron, Tituss Burgess, Mary J Blige
Running Time: 2 hrs 25 mins

For all the love thrown at Aretha Franklin’s great recordings from the late 1960s and early 1970s, the woman herself has remained something of a buttoned-up enigma.

Liesl Tommy's diverting, overly (ahem) respectful film fills in much biographical detail. Such are the horrors of the world, alas, that her tragedies will seem all too familiar from previous biopics of female musicians. There is something of Tina Turner in What's Love Got to Do with It. Andra Day went through further misuse in last year's odd The United States vs Billie Holiday. One or two films about country musicians move through similar territory.

Franklin’s traumas were, of course, all her own. The daughter of stern, charismatic preacher CL Franklin, she grew up in a house where, the film suggests, she might be casually asked to accompany the great jazz pianist Art Tatum. Her father was unforgiving. Later she fell in with violent partners. There were addiction issues.

It is not to diminish Franklin’s suffering in any way to suggest we need some original swivel on these incidents to get air between the film and a dozen other predecessors. Tracey Scott Wilson’s off-the-peg script fails to deliver that spin. We know where we are going from the start of nearly every scene.


Few contemporary performers have more robust pipes, but not even she can hope to emulate Franklin at full-strength vocal epiphany

What Respect does have going for it is Jennifer Hudson and some stirring musical sequences. Just as these films have become loaded with cliches, the reviews have too often lazily argued that "[Lead Actor X] just about saves the day". Well, here we are again.

Hudson has the good sense not to go for a formal impersonation. Few contemporary performers have more robust pipes, but not even she can hope to emulate Franklin at full-strength vocal epiphany. Instead, the younger woman works touches of Aretha’s delivery into performances that mark out their own ground.

Forest Whitaker hams it up as dad. Mary J Blige makes the most of a small role as jazz great Dinah Washington. Marlon Wayans swaggers as Aretha's first husband, Ted White. But the most stirring conversations are those that revolve around the music. Fans will lap up the scenes in which Aretha collaborates with producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron) and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.

Taking its cue from Bohemian Rhapsody, Respect ends with a famous apotheosising performance. Here it is the 1972 gospel concert that inspired the record Amazing Grace and the recently reassembled film of the same name. It cracks along so lustily one can almost forget the industry-standard drama that preceded it. Almost.

Released on September 10th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist