By Lynn Venhaus
Jennifer Hudson is a vocal powerhouse as “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin, showing her rise from preacher’s daughter to global fame and fortune. She pours her heart and soul into this role of a lifetime.
But unfortunately, the film is a formulaic biopic that hits all the melodramatic cliches of a messy personal life when the career achievements should have been more of a focus, instead of a greatest hits package followed by a photo-and-video collage during the credits.
The R&B superstar Aretha died at age 76 on Aug. 16, 2018, so there is a lot of life to pack into a 2 hour and 25- minute film, and while Aretha’s true story is a dandy one, the movie decides to ramp up the soap opera and leaves gaps in professional highlights.
First-time director Leisl Tommy, coming from Broadway, and screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson (“Fosse/Verdon”) time-stamp events, but some of the major recording milestones are given short shrift in favor of the seamier side of the characters. The movie touches upon childhood traumas – but no real depth — maintains a choppy style that leaves out facts that should have been included.
Aretha, who grew up comfortably in Detroit and sang not only at New Bethel Baptist Church, where her father was pastor, but also entertained invited guests at his beautiful home, was sexually abused by a family friend as a girl and had her first child at age 12. She was emotionally damaged by the loss of her divorced mother (Audra McDonald), who did not have custody, and died before Aretha was 10.
Skye Dakota Turner does a remarkable job as the young Aretha. She also played a young Anna Mae Bullock, aka Tina Turner, in the recent Broadway musical on that singer’s life and career.
The main theme of this biopic is how Aretha was controlled by men – her father, Clarence, played by Forest Whitaker as a strict authoritarian with a hunger for celebrity status, and her abusive husband-manager Ted White, well-played by Marlon Wayans, whom she was married to from 1961 to 1969. You can feel the tensions rise every time he walks into a room, whether it’s with her family or a recording session, because of his combative know-it-all nature — and his eye on the gravy train.
How she finally dealt with her ‘demons,’ including a downward spiral as an alcoholic that seemed to come out of nowhere, is addressed but quickly. That tonal shift is one of the film’s problems.
The movie hits its stride when the restless artist in her craves something more than recording jazz albums, and she hooks up with legendary producer Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records – comedian Marc Maron in an endearing, natural performance as the blunt-spoken instinctual record label pioneer.
Her Muscle Shoals recording sessions in Alabama in 1967 and her reinvention of Otis Redding’s “Respect” with the help of her sisters — and back-up singers, is a high point, and offers an intriguing inside look of an uncompromising artist.
Hudson is electric when performing Franklin’s hit songs, including her first number one, “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You,” and her chart-toppers “Chain of Fools” and “Think.”
The Oscar winner for her breakthrough performance as Effie White in “Dreamgirls,” Hudson has grown as a confident performer and understands Franklin’s multi-facets. In her posture, she carries herself with that same dignity. The costumes and hair and make-up are outstanding, encompassing at least four decades.
For as much as this story is heightened drama about her personal life, we mostly get fuzzy details. Aretha, mother of four, was married twice and had a child with her road manager.
Considered one of the most influential artists of the 1960s, she was a civil rights activist early on and a feminist inspiration after recording “Respect” and Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
The first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Franklin was named the number one female singer of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. Her blend of spirituals, the blues, R&B and rock and roll was one-of-a-kind. You will leave with more of an appreciation for the woman and the artist.
You must stay through the credits to get some professional nuggets, including her appearance at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration and paying tribute to Carole King at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors. There is a lot of reading to do.
The cast is large and sprawling, and sometimes, hard to figure out who is who. However, Mary J. Blige is notable as diva Dinah Washington, who throws major shade Aretha’s way after she moves to New York City.
Such formidable singers as 6-time Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald, who plays Aretha’s mother Barbara, and Tony winner Heather Headley, as Clarence Franklin’s longtime girlfriend Clara Ward, are in minor roles.
The movie, while overly long, leaves out her second marriage to actor Glynn Turman and one of her biggest triumphs, singing “Nessun dorma” at the Grammy Awards in place of an ill Luciano Pavarotti. It doesn’t mention moving over to Arista Records and RCA, and only gives a photo nod to her appearance in “The Blues Brothers.”
However, it does include the personal triumph of recording gospel music with a Baptist church in L.A. in 1972, “Amazing Grace,” which became her best-selling album of all-time and inspired a riveting documentary of the same name that wasn’t released until 2018. The doc is worth a rental.
For all of the film’s zig-zagging, the music plays the most memorable role. And nothing can take that away from Miss Franklin, who tried to live life on her terms, and was a force until the end.
“Respect” is a 2021 biopic directed by Liesl Tommy and starring Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald and Marc Maron. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, strong language including racial epithets, violence, suggestive material, and smoking, run time is 2 hours, 25 minutes. In theaters Aug. 13. Lynn’s Grade: B
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.