by Tom Beasley
Of all of the victims of the movie Cats – and there were many – perhaps the most mistreated was Jennifer Hudson. One of the best singers currently working in Hollywood was forced to belt out Memory while bathed in her own tears and snot, with dodgy digital fur distracting from her vocals. Remember when we thought she was going to win an Oscar for it?
Thankfully, the almighty Hudson is allowed to take centre stage – without whiskers – in Aretha Franklin biopic Respect, in which she steps into the character and voice of one of history’s greatest performers. If J-Hud felt the pressure, it doesn’t show.
The movie follows Franklin from her childhood in 1950s Michigan, falling pregnant at the age of just 12 after a chilling act of exploitation, and her first recording deal brokered by her reverend father Clarence (Forest Whitaker) through to her ascent up the ladder of the music industry. Tracey Scott Wilson’s script traces the singer’s career over the course of two decades, from her childhood through to the recording of her iconic Amazing Grace gospel album in 1972.
It’s a very traditional biopic, helmed by theatre director Liesl Tommy in her first movie gig. Much like The United States vs. Billie Holiday earlier this year, the film is let down by the restrictions of its conventional and tired structure. A figure as important and influential as Franklin deserves more than a relatively leaden two and a half hour trudge through her life. Everybody knows the key beats already, so do something other than a ramble through Wikipedia.
With that said, Respect is a decently watchable film, mostly powered along by the dynamism of Hudson’s central turn. She’s asked to portray Franklin at her best and worst, as a quietly ambitious singer who “just want hits” and as a cantankerous diva lashing out at those closest to her. Hudson adds nuance where the rather inelegant script seems unwilling to find it, with the clunky dialogue about “The Demon” inside her substituting for any sophisticated commentary on the mistreatments and abuses that afflicted Franklin throughout her life and drove her into the arms of alcohol.
In the movie’s determination to zip through the highs and lows of Franklin’s rise to superstardom, it ends up merely skimming the surface of its big issues. Respect is an unwieldy beast of a story that feels decidedly lacking in any sort of narrative elegance, jumping haphazardly between time periods in a way that leaves the audience disorientated. It’s only Hudson’s powerhouse musical work that provides a centre, holding the core of the film in place as everything else pivots wildly around it.
Given the awkward temporal gymnastics of the piece, few supporting characters ever get chance to make a real impact. Forest Whitaker does solid, dependable work as Franklin’s father, but the likes of Marlon Wayans, Marc Maron and Tituss Burgess are never given enough room to stamp their authority on their roles. The film only has eyes for its protagonist, which is fine in a tightly controlled drama, but feels like short-changing the audience in a sprawling, epic journey through a life lived in the spotlight – especially one so obviously shaped by the actions of others.
As Respect disappears in the tangle of its own skittering timeline, it moves towards the Amazing Grace recording sessions and their immortalisation in a film of the same name, which only saw the light of day as recently as 2018. This climactic scene strips everything else back, puts Hudson’s remarkable voice centre stage and provides the movie with a goosebumps-inducing finale. Much like the bravura Live Aid sequence at the end of Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s a sequence of musical joy so potent that it’s almost possible to forget the myriad scenes of the preceding movie. Almost.
Respect is out in cinemas now!