‘Respect’ Has Jennifer Hudson to Thank for Saving Its Take on Aretha Franklin

The fractious script doesn't give Jennifer Hudson much, but she's still the whole deal as Aretha.

Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige as Dinah Washington in Respect. Quantrell D. Colbert

Jennifer Hudson is so spectacular in Respect, the Aretha Franklin biopic, that she makes you overlook, ignore and eventually forgive the film’s multitudinous flaws. Her powerful voice is such a thrilling distraction from the weak direction by first-timer Liesl Tommy and the sloppy editing that punches more holes in the narrative than a Swiss cheese that you  probably won’t care about whether it’s a good movie (not very) and wonder how long it will take to present her with a  companion for the Oscar on her mantel she won in 2007 for Dreamgirls.

The saga of a tortured singer fighting to survive overwhelming career odds and personal demons is a familiar story that has been told numerous times before in biopics about everyone from Helen Morgan and Ruth Etting to Judy Garland and Billie Holiday. Aretha’s story, which includes a pregnancy at age 12, four sons she hardly knew, alcoholism, drug dependency, domestic abuse, two divorces and bouts of cancer surgery, most closely resembles Lillian Roth’s I’ll Cry Tomorrow. With one damned thing after another for five decades, it’s a miracle the Queen of Soul had time to record 112 singles and dozens of albums, sell 75 million records and win practically every award known to man including eight Grammys and a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. Struggling to cram a mountain of material into a single movie proves to be more of a puzzle than scriptwriter Tracey Scott Wilson can solve, and the truncated narrative result leaves out major facts and leaps around in time like a Mexican jumping bean. My advice: forget about trying to piece the jumbled fragments of Aretha’s life and just let the music speak for itself, gaps and all. Jennifer Hudson does not disappoint, even when the movie does.

(3/4 stars)
Directed by: Liesl Tommy
Written by: Tracey Scott Wilson
Starring: Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald
Running time: 145 mins.

Respect begins in Detroit in 1952, when Aretha’s father, the  noisy hellfire and brimstone minister of the New Bethel Baptist church C. L. Franklin (a fine if under-used Forest Whitaker) would drag her out of bed in the middle of the night and force her to show off her decibel-shattering voice at his Saturday night parties. The movie is vague about their dark relationship, her formative training singing gospel in the choir between shouting matches, why she was abandoned early by her adoring mother Barbara (played by a totally wasted Audra McDonald, who sings a duet and dies after one scene), how she felt about the grandmother (Kimberly Scott) who raised her children, her lifelong battle with her sisters who later sang background vocals on her recordings, or her reputation as a dedicated civil-rights activist. One minute she’s in Birmingham, Alabama, joining forces with Martin Luther King, Jr. (although we never see her marching in Selma). A minute later, she’s 18, in New York signing a contract with Columbia Records, where they tried to pattern her after other jazz artists like Ella Fitzgerald with disastrous results.

Suddenly it’s 1963 and she’s onstage at the Village Vanguard where Dinah Washington (a strident Mary J. Blige) rises from the audience and tells her off in front of the horrified audience for turning out nine albums without a single hit and singing standards like “Skylark” instead of the gospel-infused rhythm and blues she wanted to sing. The scene is fictional, but it’s a clue to why she forged ahead to find the true vocal style that made her famous. Wafting back and forth between her fistfights as the abused wife of her sadistic control freak manager-husband Ted White (a handsome but venomous Marlon Wayans), her battles with clueless record producers and white musicians and her lawsuits with four record labels, the movie is more like a storyboard or an outline instead of a movie.

It’s one hour into the film before 1968 hits and she finally finds superstardom and the respect she craves when she was crowned “Queen of Soul.” The label stuck through hell and high water until she died of pancreatic cancer in 2018 at the age of 76. One of the salient facts the film leaves out is the fact that she was hardly a happy corpse, leaving behind a monetary value of $80-million and no will to take care of her four kids. Too many questions and too many missing links instead of satisfactory answers.

Having voiced so many reservations, I must add that Jennifer Hudson as Aretha is the whole deal. The fractious script doesn’t give her much of a chance to act, but she sure can “sing out Louise.” The way she belts out the title song “Respect,” “Amazing Grace,” and other Aretha signature numbers are highlights that rock. The film culminates in actual electrifying footage of the real Aretha belting out Carole King’s “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors that made Barack Obama cry. Even here, Hudson’s magic is not diminished. The film is short on narrative and long on singing — entirely too much of it, if you ask me. You’ll learn more in the Franklin biographies by David Ritz. Still, the star carries the music into historical perspective and makes it a welcome focus. She doesn’t look or sound like Aretha Franklin, but she’s got the heart and soul. In my ears, the sound of applause is still ringing.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Respect’ Has Jennifer Hudson to Thank for Saving Its Take on Aretha Franklin