“All that being said, I think “Genius: Aretha” is satisfactory in its presentation of the singer’s brilliance, her determination to succeed and obtain rightful credit for her work in a male dominated and company focused industry, navigating her social and familial relationships, and doing it all while attempting to maintain a very private profile. And I say this after only receiving 7 episodes and not having seen the finale. And though I think Erivo was solid – episode one, dressing room scene, one tear in right eye while wiping makeup from bruised left (take note) – and she finessed the sometimes comic, graceful, and humble yet fierce demeanors that Franklin often interchangeably displayed in interviews, and her singing is technically great, I don’t believe she nailed all of the featured songs, several that include the late singer’s mind-blowing riffs and runs”Excerpt from Thomasena’s review of “Genius: Aretha”
The above quote is a part of my review for Genius: Aretha from March 2021, and it seems I can just reverse those words and apply directly to the newly released, and long-awaited biopic, RESPECT starring Jennifer Hudson as the late Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.
Of course, Hudson nails every song performance and finesse’s her deeply rooted in Black American soul and gospel vocal instrument to honor and pay homage to a woman not many can attempt to emulate.
But when it came to presenting the complicated and multi-dimensional nature of Franklin, I was much less impressed with Hudson’s portrayal. However, I don’t blame the star as much as I am disappointed by the story that was chosen to be told, which wasn’t as dynamic as its subject. Working with what she was given, Hudson serves up an adequate and “respectable” Aretha, but anyone who’s familiar with the Queen’s story might come expecting more.
“Respect” follows Franklin from pre-adolescence to her teenage years, including a sexual assault and her becoming a mother, to her experiences navigating the record industry and troubled relationships, to her reclaiming her musical autonomy with the 1972 live recording of the “Amazing Grace” concert album (see video below to hear the director and co-writer responses about why that period).
While the Liesl Tommy directed film succeeds in capturing the authenticity of the periods shown, including the stunning costume design by Clint Ramos, the Callie Khouri and Tracey Scott Wilson co-written script doesn’t allow for more than above the surface storytelling – failing to dive deep enough into Franklin’s struggles, physical and emotional, to garner the character immersions we’ve seen in some previous biographical depictions – like Jamie Foxx’s “Ray” or Angela Bassett’s phenomenal portrayal of Tina Turner in 1993’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It.”
I think it’s safe to say that, unlike their disapproval of the eight-part Nat Geo series, the approval and subsequent involvement of the Franklin estate (Franklin herself being pivotal in getting project made prior to her death) influenced a more pared down and sanitized story – ultimately impacting how far the film delved into the most complicated parts of the legend’s life.
Because of that, we don’t learn of any impact or trauma the Reverend C. L. Franklin’s marital troubles – including his sexual indiscretions, domestic violence and his statutory rape of a pre-teen resulting in pregnancy – and respectability politics, with consideration for the family’s significant involvement in the church, played in the formation of Franklin’s own relationships and the conflicts that ensued.
The film also fails to emphasize that Franklin was both a vocal “and” piano virtuoso without formal musical training and the ability to read music yet would still command studio sessions and hold her own against, and guide, the most adept studio musicians.
Despite the battles against the domineering men in her early career, father and her husband Ted White included, Franklin’s musical abilities were always a force that couldn’t be easily contained nor defined, hence her initial battle to nail down a sound – which the film does appropriately highlight and notes especially with a cameo featuring Mary J. Blige as the late icon Dinah Washington.
Outside of the major musical numbers, several of the co-starring performances were remarkable including the screen debut of Skye Dakota Turner as a young Aretha, Tituss Burgess as James Cleveland and Audra McDonald as Aretha’s mother Barbara Siggers Franklin. Marlon Wayans also solidly breaks stereotype as Franklin’s first husband Ted – with a performance that I’m hoping leads to more dramatic opportunities for the primarily comedic thespian.
Even through my disappointment with parts of this film, I think it would be insane to dismiss the challenges faced in depicting a legend’s life on-screen in a two-to-two-and-a-half-hour timespan, especially when there’s a strong family estate granting approval.
Back in 2013, I spoke with director Allen Hughes, who was frustrated that he couldn’t bring his Jimi Hendrix biopic to fruition. The Hendrix estate is no joke and had infamously prevented the use of any of the late musician’s songs in the Andre 3000 led vehicle “Jimi: All Is by My Side.” When I asked Hughes if there was another artist whose story he would like direct, he gave a quick almost defeated, “Nope, that’s it.”
So, I was ecstatic when it was announced last June that he would in fact be directing the Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine produced Marvin Gaye biopic. But I quickly remembered that the Gaye estate is also a strong (and litigious) unit, and I pray that its influence doesn’t elicit another watered-down portrait of an uber-talented yet complicated musician.
As a recommendation, I would certainly encourage you to watch “Respect” and decide for yourselves, but I wouldn’t be mad if someone said he or she would wait for an on-demand or streaming release. I would have bet money before screening that my rating would be higher. Ultimately, I rate it 3 out of 5 on the MMTrometer.
Until next thought, Thomasena