The newest Aretha Franklin biopic collapses into music biopic cliches
The music biopic is in serious need of a redesign. While I acknowledge that many famous songwriters have very similar stories regarding their rise and fall from grace, the filmmakers adapting their life have got to be more creative instead of falling into indistinguishable beats. The latest of these lazy and unimaginative biopics is of the Queen of Soul: Aretha Franklin in Respect (2021).
Respect follows the life of one of the most impactful singers of the last century: Aretha Franklin. We follow Aretha (Jennifer Hudson) from her childhood days under the tutelage of her controlling father (Forest Whitaker) in 1950s Detroit, to her chaotic marriage with her abusive alcoholic husband (Marlon Wayans), and finally to her actual autonomy which, while producing some of her greatest hits, also made her go down the dark hole of alcoholism.
The film is the big feature debut of director Liesl Tommy, who had previously cut her teeth in series the likes of Insecure (2016-), The Walking Dead (2010-), and Jessica Jones (2015-2019). Her take on Franklin’s life, however, proves to be rather unremarkable and rather reductive. While the first third of the film is able to explore the genius behind Franklin and her singing (this aided by the fabulous Hudson), it treats Franklin’s rise as something effortless and inevitable. As the nearly two- and half-hour film progresses, it begins to fall into music biopic genre cliches; montages of albums, abusive husbands, European tour, which make the story of Franklin fade into the background as viewers become worn down by such bland and flat beats.
This lack of focus and fall into the generic is because Tommy can’t focus on one core element of Franklin that she thinks informs the story; in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) it was the concert scenes, in Rocketman (2019) it was the self-hatred. There are hints that Tommy wants to explore Franklin’s struggle to be independent, and yet she’s incapable of making such a journey come into view. Hudson puts forth a spectacular performance in the lead, but she is so poorly edited and directed that it makes Tommy’s allusions become lost in the shuffle. Franklin is shown to be shy and quiet in certain scenes, but then is perfectly expressive and normal at other points, sometimes with the same characters. This causes viewers to become confused as to which side is the real Franklin. Hudson does a phenomenal job portraying these two sides, but Tommy can’t edit her performance together well enough so that a clear progression of character is taking place; instead, we see a journey that is all over the place.
Perhaps Tommy bit off more than she could chew on a first feature. To put forth twenty years of a famed artist’s life onscreen is a big task, and one that has not really been adapted with great success. Biopics that focus on smaller, but decisive moments in a subject’s life are far more successful (Selma (2014) Judy (2019)). After all, a biopic’s job should be much more into exploring why their subject is so important, instead of what happened. To figure out the beats of someone’s life, anyone can go on Wikipedia. The what and why are essentially the fundamental differences between Bohemian Rhapsody, which just summarized Queen’s trajectory and used good songs to trick viewers into thinking there was substance, and Rocketman, which does a psychological breakdown of its character and uses cinematic tools to enhance our understanding of Elton John.
Franklin was a very private person in real life, perhaps this is why Tommy resorts to cliches of the genre. However, a documentary that came out after Franklin’s death, Amazing Grace (2018) (whose filming is depicted in the final scenes of Respect), is the only piece of visual media that was able to properly capture Franklin and her vulnerability. It is in those real images that you see the key to Franklin’s genius and the importance she gave spirituality and black pride.
Respect is a disappointing tribute to such an impactful musician. The film is littered with great performances, but Tommy is incapable of mooring her film and focusing its theme and tone down. The film isn’t bad, it simply is too mediocre to warrant its subject matter. The set-pieces and songs are enjoyable to sit through, but in terms of a character study, the Queen of Soul deserves better.