RESPECT THE QUEEN OF SOUL
I once was lost , but now I'm found;
-- "Amazing Grace," hymn
Even as a child, Aretha Franklin didn't get lost in the crowds of people--her preacher father's congregants and friends at his home. When asked to perform, often late into the night, Aretha (or Ree, her nickname) would sing, wowing those assembled. And, her mother, living apart from Aretha's father, would coach, encourage her daughter's natural gift.
The adult Aretha suppresses her ease with people--in part due to her mother's death, her father's overbearing behavior, his jealousy of his daughter's success, and her being a magnet for abusive men (the movie implies she had been a victim of alleged child abuse by a famous singer). In time, she does become lost in the demands of a skyrocketing career.
Despite those challenges, the Queen of Soul continues to find solace in her music. Respect (2021) starring Jennifer Hudson as Aretha; Skye Dakota Turner as the precocious, younger version; Forest Whitaker, Aretha's Father, Audra McDonald, her mother, and Mary J. Blige as Dinah Washington, among others, captures the drama of the legendary singer's life. However, only when Hudson sings Aretha's songs does the soul of the film come alive.
All of the actors make their mark, but its Hudson and Whittaker that capture the heart. Hudson has the range, though a higher register than Aretha's, the depth to portray the legend on stage and in the recording studio. If the actress doesn't receive an Oscar nomination, I'll be stymied. Whittaker has a difficult challenge playing a father whose own personal ambitions help his daughter succeed. But she also reminds him of his inability to reach a wider audience.
The film also reminds us that Aretha often wrote her own songs, had an uncanny ear plus a talent at harmonizing. And her equally accomplished sisters served not only as two backup singers, but they provided emotional support during the star's tumultuous life.
Director Liesel Tommy and Screenwriters Tracy Scott Wilson/Callie Khouri have undertaken an enormous challenge in this biopic. Much of it succeeds because of its stellar cast. Nonetheless, the audience can't help but be moved by Aretha Franklin's story, giving credence to the director and writer's ability to touch us. One misstep: including a reenactment of Aretha's Amazing Grace concert (2006 documentary that shows clips from her performance at the New Baptist Church, Los Angeles) doesn't hold a candle to the real production. If you haven't seen the documentary, the viewer may be more impressed. Besides, C. L. Franklin's reaction to his daughter's performance reiterates why the actor, Whitaker, deserves recognition.
All in all, Respect finds its heart when Jennifer Hudson channels the riveting artistry of the Queen of Soul. The actress reminds us how a great singer can shake our emotional foundation and lift the spirit.
Rated PG-13 for adult themes, excessive drinking, implicit trauma, and domestic violence.
Now available on Blu-Ray/DVD and digital platforms.
Earlier reviews not seen on this website (before May 20, 2021) are available on https://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/wendy-shreve/movies or my previous blog site, featuringfilm.com
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