The other stars of the film are director Tommy and writer Wilson. This is the way I wish all biopics were shot and pieced together. My biggest complaint about biopics is how they feel like shifting chapters of a book. Respect moves smoothly from one moment to the next. First, flashbacks are used sparingly and only for emotional effect. Second, often in biopics, the lead character is placed in the center of the action, merely reacting to what is happening around them. Here, the singer rightly drives the narrative. Aretha makes choices that move her from one scene to the next.
I will say that in the first act, nothing will surprise you. The men in Aretha’s life rule with an iron fist and abuse, dismiss, and sorely underestimate her. Yes, Aretha has her white saviors in Wexler and Muscle Shoals record studio owner, which shouldn’t be an issue because it is historical. What pushes Respect over the top is the music. Again, no surprise that Jennifer Hudson does justice to Aretha Franklin. Song after song kicks. There are more than a few occasions where Aretha’s songwriting process is on full display, including I Never Loved A Man and the titular Respect.
“…Jennifer Hudson does justice to Aretha Franklin.”
Along with the music, Respect plays with the themes of family, faith, and redemption. Her relationship with her overbearing father and siblings is no surprise narratively but evolves in amazing ways and is anchored by an outstanding performance by Forest Whitaker. Tituss Burgess gives one incredibly heartful and spiritual moment as famed Gospel artist and Aretha’s music director, Reverend Dr. James Cleveland.
The film ends with Aretha’s redemption in life and the production of her Amazing Grace album and documentary. We’ve all heard the album, and most have seen the documentary, but it takes on a whole new meaning when placed in the context of where Franklin was in her life. As much as Respect is your typical biopic with its straightforward narrative, it’s easily one of my favorites movies (if not favorite) of the year. Liesl Tommy extracts the proper emotion from every scene, and the music is like truffles on top of a fantastic meal. And it’s all brought to life by Hudson’s powerhouse vocals and acting.
"…the music is like truffles on top of a fantastic meal."