In the past, I’ve made it clear that I don’t like reviewing movies that are part of a massive globally successful franchise. For instance, when there’s a new Marvel film or a new “Fast and Furious” movie or some new entry in the Star Wars saga, why would you or anyone else waste your time reading my review? You already know what you’re getting, you already know whether or not you’re going to see it, and nothing I say will change your mind or tell you anything you don’t already know.
But just slightly under that category of “films I hate to review” would be by-the-numbers Oscar-bait flicks. Movies that promise something groundbreaking and innovative, only to deliver something disposable and fervently by-the-numbers like we’ve seen so many times before. Movies that are hyped up to hell and back, loaded with talent from top to bottom, but still leave that hollow feeling of untapped potential. These are “so good they’re bad” movies: Films that stick to the tried-and-true template so rigidly that they don’t do anything overtly wrong, but they don’t really do anything exceptional either.
So here we are with Respect, in which Executive Producer Jennifer Hudson embodies Aretha Franklin, portraying the legendary Queen of Soul from 1960, right up until the release of her “Amazing Grace” gospel album in 1972. (I might add that during the ’50s, ten-year-old Aretha is played by newcomer Skye Dakota Turner.)
Jennifer Hudson delivers a tour-de-force performance, and she absolutely crushes the musical numbers. In particular, that performance of the title track at the halfway point is magnificent. I don’t care how many times you’ve heard “Respect” in the past, you’ve never heard it like this. Spellbinding, utterly magical.
But you already know all of this. It’s all you really need to know. And there’s not much else about the film worth talking about.
Oh! Except for this one neat editing trick where a scene is apparently over, but then a flashback happens and shows us something that happened after the cut, retroactively changing the whole context of the scene. I’ll give the film that much for ingenuity.
Audra McDonald shows up as Aretha’s mother, but she gets maybe two minutes of screen time in total. Likewise, Titus Burgess and Mary J. Blige only barely have just enough time to fill an Oscar clip. Forest Whitaker is easily the standout of the supporting cast, elegantly playing a devoted father who doesn’t comprehend how toxic and possessive he really is.
But then we have Marlon Wayans as the romantic lead. I’ll repeat that. Theodore Richard White — Aretha Franklin’s manager and first husband, here portrayed as a man of raw sexual magnetism with a hair-trigger temper — is played by the male lead from Fifty Shades of Black. This wasn’t even a good idea on paper, and Wayans’ chemistry with Hudson is practically nil. Of all the black actors in show business right now who would literally murder someone to play this role in a mainstream Oscar-bait movie about Aretha Franklin, I flat-out refuse to believe that Marlon “I think White Chicks 2 is necessary” Wayans was the best these filmmakers could get.
(Side note: Yes, I know Wayans delivered a powerhouse dramatic turn in Requiem for a Dream. That was twenty years ago. And with all due respect to Liesl Tommy — here making her feature directing debut — she’s no Aronofsky.)
That said, Whitaker and Wayans both play important roles in that C.L. Franklin and Ted White are both charming yet manipulative and domineering assholes looking to control Aretha’s career and ride her coattails. Again, this is standard biopic stuff. But then a later scene comes along and we see how Aretha’s past abuse causes further trauma down the line.
Remember, her own father honestly believed that he loved Aretha and he was only acting in her best interests, even as he was holding her back and threatening violence if she stepped out of line. Ditto for her husband. So when the real deal comes along (ie: somebody who genuinely does have her interests at heart and isn’t an abusive asshole), Aretha doesn’t trust her own judgment. Even if it’s a blood relative, even if it’s the man she fell in love with, she’s been burned too badly by more of the same before.
There’s a lot of emotional baggage in there to sort though, and going down this path to show how trauma begets more trauma could’ve been genuinely compelling. But instead, the filmmakers funnel that into a “recovering alcoholic” arc that eventually culminates in rediscovering Jesus, leading us directly to that gospel album. All tried-and-true Oscar-bait material, delivered with ruthless and predictable efficiency.
Getting back to the subject of abuse, it bears mentioning that Aretha Franklin had her first child at the age of twelve. The film does indeed show a brief glimpse of a pregnant pre-teen Aretha Franklin, and a brief yet disturbing scene of young Aretha in a room with an unnamed teenage boy. And that is literally all we get. Because the film can’t be bothered with such an important yet shocking and volatile subject as sexual abuse of a minor and the potential long-term effects thereof.
(Side note: Of course the film completely neglects to mention that C.L. Franklin knocked up a 12-year-old girl in his own congregation. Indeed, there’s no specific reason given as to why Aretha’s parents split up, except that they apparently fought all the time.)
Of course I’m not saying that any of this would’ve made the film any better — I certainly can’t know that for sure — but at least it would’ve made the film more interesting. Because in the absence of anything else, all we’ve got is another musical biopic treading more or less the exact same ground that Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman last paved over.
Moreover, this is a film that suffers from the exact same problem that drags down nearly every cradle-to-grave biopic ever made: It’s trying to cram way too much into too little runtime. Even at two and a half hours, the film glosses over so many details in a breathless rush to get from one plot point to the next. I think the filmmakers were trying to make this into a story about how Aretha Franklin bucks all the men trying to control her life and learns how to find her own voice, but that point might’ve been a lot more clear and a lot less watered-down if we had cut the entire third act.
Respect is exactly what it says on the tin and literally nothing else. If you want to see Jennifer Hudson deliver an incredible performance as Aretha Franklin while belting her way through eighteen jaw-dropping covers, then listen to the soundtrack. And maybe give the film a watch if the film gets some nominations and you’re an Oscar completionist. Or if you haven’t already seen Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman… or maybe if you have seen them both and you’re hungry for more.
Otherwise, I’m sorry, but I don’t see any reason to sit through two-and-a-half hours of the same disposable mediocrity that comes and goes with every Oscars season.