As I sat sobbing in the movie theater reflecting on Aretha Franklin’s legacy as the credits of RESPECT began to roll, I also was thinking about how much I love sitting in a movie theater, taking in the experience of seeing a film with an audience. It is hard to accurately describe the communal experience and its ability to impact your mood when watching a movie. But watching RESPECT in a busy theater with a crowd full of singing, clapping, and cheering Aretha fans filled the film canister shaped hole in my heart.
Don’t get me wrong, RESPECT is fairly self-explanatory and not the kind of biopic that is reinventing the wheel. It admittedly leans hard into the typical clichés associated with the genre (alcoholism, abuse, etc.). But a phenomenal performance by Jennifer Hudson, who was chosen for the role by queen Aretha herself before passing away, is what makes it all worth it. Hudson is not only an Academy Award-winning actress, but she has the vocal chops to make it seem more like you are at a tribute concert for Franklin than a movie. It was a little jarring that she plays Franklin as a teenager and young adult, which makes the film’s timeline hard to follow at times, but Hudson unsurprisingly knocks this performance out of the park and I wouldn’t be surprised if she is in discussions for award consideration.
The theme of the film is Franklin finding her voice after decades of male control and abuse, and balancing a career in the spotlight with her faith. This idea is shown not only through the script and music choices in the film, but also in Liesl Tommy’s direction and Kramer Morgenthau’s spectacular cinematography. I loved two specific shots that perfectly represent Franklin’s differing priorities at two critical moments in her life. The first is a shot of Aretha at the height of her substance abuse, criticizing her family and friends with a huge self-portrait looming in the background. That shot, juxtaposed with one in the last scene of the film where Aretha is performing (no spoilers) with a mural of Jesus in the background is *chef’s kiss* to her redemption arc. Is it a little on the nose? Absolutely. But this is Hollywood, baby!
I love that the film sits in these musical moments, letting the audience feel what Franklin was going through personally and professionally when some of the greatest songs of all time were being created and performed. The performance in Madison Square Garden and particularly the song at the end of the film in the church (again, no spoilers) made me feel like I was there myself; my audible sobbing probably also gave me away.
Another performance I have to call out is the amazing Tituss Burgess (THE UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT), who completely becomes Rev. James Cleveland. He may only have about 15 minutes of screentime, but those scenes with Hudson were some of my favorites in the film and the most heartfelt. It was hard to even see him in the character because he gave such a transformative performance.
RESPECT is an entertaining crowdpleaser that works as a movie and concert all at once, two for the price of one. I thought I knew Aretha Franklin because I am such a fan of her music, but this film helped me learn so much more about who she was as a person and her incredible legacy not only as the Queen of Soul but as an instrumental hero in the Civil Rights Movement. While this isn’t a film you have to see in theaters, especially with COVID-19 rates increasing daily, it was one of the best theater experiences I have had in a long time. And isn’t that just the kind of mental break we need right now?
My Review: B