Tropic Sprockets / Respect

By Ian Brockway

Theatre director Liesl Tommy directs “Respect,” a much awaited biopic on the beloved Aretha Franklin. The film is emotive and stirring, with a big-hearted performance from Jennifer Hudson to its credit. At the start, young Aretha (wonderfully played by Skye Dakota Turner) is happy to sing with her dad, the charismatic minister C.L. Franklin (Forrest Whitaker). Music comes easy to her, but C. L. Franklin becomes more and more demanding.

Mom (Audra McDonald) tells Aretha that “only God” owns her voice and that she doesn’t have to fear any man.

Aretha learns to take the advice to heart. 

The film shows an adult friend making a pass at Aretha age 11 and she becomes pregnant.

Abruptly, mom dies in an accident. Aretha refuses to sing or speak.

James Cleveland (Tituss Burgess) is a calming force and soon Aretha is back with a voice.

At a family reunion, Aretha (Jennifer Hudson) meets Ted White (Marlon Wayans). Smoky romance, percussive noise and violence ensue. 

Hudson is riveting in the role, filling the screen with a genuine performance full of musical reality. Hudson’s incarnation of “I Never Loved a Man” is eerily authentic. Equally important here, is movement and drama and the actress captures both. At times, Franklin is saintly and spirited, at others the singer is seductive and sensual, disciplined and devout, or harried and harassed by male malevolence. Jennifer Hudson contains all of these elements in one Aretha. 

Wayans is perfect as Ted White. Sly and scary with a direct affection that can be healing as well as scary, a wolf as a man.

To watch Jennifer Hudson is to see a woman surrounded and propelled by the sound of magic, darkness and light. The real Aretha is conjured as if by double exposure.

One moving scene depicts Aretha in a dark room, disheveled, encircled by bottles. The singer is beset by liquor leaping demons: jealous, angry, fuming with pride, egotistically intense. 

Though conventionally related in sequence, “Respect” is percussive with empathy and sonic feeling. The film is a journey of sound and pathos. Aretha is represented fully and completely. 

The sight of Franklin, the saintly seductress, will evoke a deliverance of actual tears. In the body of Hudson, here is the woman with eyes that lean into a smile. Here is the sound-painter with the leaping voice that brought gospel into the blues and jazz into Jesus, all the better to fight demons.

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