What is it with these Oscar-bait 60s-70s era musician biopics all following the same formula… while also naming their movie off the name of the artist’s biggest hit? Like really, we got Bohemian Rhapsody, Walk the Line, La Vie en Rose, Rocketman, and I’m sure there’s much more. Now, we got Respect, which does its very best to be meaningful as it shows the cost of stardom, like these other similar films do, but it takes no risks in doing so. Unless you’re a Christian or a fan of Aretha Franklin, it’s going to be difficult to remember seeing this one.
This really works better as a one-time viewing experience, and it honestly does that well enough. Aretha Franklin’s nickname, “Ree-Ree,“ is said many times, and it adds a powerful personal touch because people all have those nicknames that identify them as involved with their families. Although the name is more bittersweet for her if anything, as the name seems to be her title as she goes through the same journey as the prophet Jonah. That journey starts when she at age ten is seen being woken up by dad to sing to guests at a party; so right from the introduction, it’s established that the arc of the father will be a wakeup call to dads everywhere as to how gloating over their kids‘ talents can hinder their developmental health. Yet when she starts singing, Aretha’s joyful soul comes out without any filter, just like how the real Franklin sang.
Then her mother enters the picture—the only thing they’re seen doing together is singing in front of the piano, it works here because the clear love between them helps make the shock of her childhood strike harder. While it does scratch the surface of just how upsetting Franklin’s childhood really was (aside from a brief shot of her pregnant at age twelve), it does everything in its willpower to feel authentic to what really happened; even the guy playing Martin Luther King Jr. has a voice that actually does sound like him. So ultimately, the scenes of her childhood work to understand Aretha’s side when everyone wants to argue with her throughout her musical career. The first act provides further justification as to why she needs the church so badly, since that’s the place where she feels she can show the true extent of her singing capability- in the house of the God who owns her voice.
So this film has a surprisingly strong portrayal of the church; it doesn’t shy away from the hypocrisy of most preachers, but also depicts it as a place of hope and retreat. In this time depicted, the church is the only place the Black community could go to feel safe, where they don’t have to worry about becoming field workers harvesting cotton. That’s why the church attendees need Aretha as much as she needs them, because her praises sung to God helps them get in touch with the Lord. Those styles of gospel music coming out of Aretha’s mouth ranges all over, from the fun, bouncy piano music in the beginning to the somber way she sings at MLK’s funeral. It seems to peak at first when they finally sing the title song, but the real peak is when her whole soul comes out while singing “Amazing Grace.”
Its redemptive message however isn’t as well realized as it could have been since the numerous errors block its path to excellence. Audra McDonald is cast as Andrea’s mother, but she’s hardly present to show off her legendary operatic voice to its full extent, as the casting crew clearly intended. Especially when it came to the plot, the recording artists who manage Aretha, along with her abusive husband, are just straight-up cold without any justification to their lack of sympathy. The film feels even more on the bland side by the awful digital effects that stick out in ways not seen in other films. There are numerous times when Franklin’s old album covers are included, and they all have Jennifer Hudson’s face badly edited on. Also, whenever captions are included to indicate where or when a new scene takes place, the timing of the caption is a bit off. But the cheapest digital trick of all is when the cinematographer applies the black and white filter in an attempt to imitate the old news footage look of the era- no grain included.
Then there’s this overly long concert scene that while as lively and colorful as concerts today, isn’t as awesome as it wanted to be, particularly in the nauseating camera that turns around Aretha too much as she sings. As if the cinematography wasn’t dreadful enough, the aperture is rarely, if ever, in proper focus, and the hazy backlights look hideous as they blare out the subjects in the foreground. Even the makeup crew isn’t as well-tuned as they could be; not a single person ages throughout this movie. The dad in particular never shows any sign of wrinkles or gray hairs as his daughter enters adulthood, he just looks virtually the same over the movie’s 20+ year timespan. Therefore, how could anyone here be believable as a human being? With all this biopic tries in honoring such an iconic voice, it just can’t cross the point of being universally worthwhile entertainment beyond Christians and Aretha Franklin fans, it will just be forgotten pretty quickly.
Even if this movie is far from perfect or memorable, there should still be a fair amount of respect to give to… well, Respect. Unlike other musician biopics set in the 60s or 70s, this has a keener understanding of why striving toward fame is almost like a death sentence; what works here is its incorporation of Aretha Franklin’s Christian faith. She well onto her death knew that only God provided her with such a powerful voice, and she knew she had to share it with the world so others could hear the voice of Heaven. So if you’re neither a Christian nor an Aretha Franklin fan, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to give this a try. Who knows what you can learn from this feature film? You might very well be convicted of your own race to fame, and consider what exactly it is that you want out of the public attention: Is it for your legacy on Earth or for your life in eternity?
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see graded, or if you are interested in guest blogging for my site, please email me at Trevor@TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com for your recommendations.
Have a great weekend, and happy watching!