The Hollywood landscape of today is one dominated by that of IP, with projects that look to entertain most often through an established formula time and time again. In particularly, it makes the modern music biopic feel almost like the cheapest drug around. They’re films which are often little more than glorified acts of brand management. In between crowd-pleasing musical numbers that double as fan service and estate-approved info to dole-out, everything in these movies feels designed to milk viewers’ prefab nostalgia. Its gotten to the point that there’s become little difference between how the industry approaches a legendary musician and how it adapts a comic book. Respect proves no different by turning the story of Aretha Franklin (Jennifer Hudson) into an overstuffed Wikipedia page entry of a movie. Tracey Scott Wilson’s script reduces two decades of Franklin’s life, from her early years singing in her father’s church choir through the recording of Amazing Grace, to a series of historical boxes to systematically check off. We watch her graduate from the choir to Columbia Records, then we watch her struggle at the label and under her father’s cruel management, and then we watch her sign to Atlantic Records where she becomes the Queen of Soul. Throughout, the film takes our emotional investment in this journey for granted.
Along the way, Respect shamelessly traffics in numerous biopic clichés thoroughly skewered by Walk Hard. Famous figures introduce themselves by their full names. The cast delivers expository dialogue that awkwardly offers or reiterates historical context. Montages of thankless struggle and glorious success pass in a blur. And there’s the dark period in the third act. Respect so closely hews to the Dewey Cox template that a potentially dangerous “spot the trope” drinking game seems inevitable. Franklin’s real life was obviously filled with drama worthy of the big screen, but Wilson and director Liesl Tommy take a comprehensive approach that treats major life events like soapy episodes.
Naturally, Respect leans on its ensemble to enliven the material. Sometimes, they do. Hudson stumbles on some of her dialogue, but she generally nails the musical sequences by infusing her own personality into Franklin’s work, elevating her performance from an impression to an interpretation. Forest Whitaker, on the other hand, finds only two modes for Franklin’s father: cautious kindness and blusterous anger. Among the supporting cast, Marlon Wayans gets pretty rocky as Franklin’s abusive husband Ted White. Meanwhile, Marc Maron brings some spiky energy to the table by playing Jerry Wexler like he’s Franklin’s bristly cheerleader, and Mary J. Blige does solid work for her one scene as Franklin’s early-career mentor Dinah Washington. All of actors in Respect strive to invest their scenes with real emotion, which only makes the trite dialogue and clumsy conflicts they’re saddled with stick out even more.
Part of the problem lies with Respect‘s sycophantic tone, with how the movie treats Franklin more as an icon than a person. Wilson’s script weaves a potentially strong thread by structuring Franklin’s story around the domineering men who govern her: Liberating herself first from her father and then her husband, she’s left to contend with the resulting trauma of her freedom. Yet, this concept largely dies before it starts because Franklin, as depicted, is less of a full-fledged character than a vehicle for her music. Attempts to fill out her personality by spotlighting her Civil Rights work, such as her friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. and her support for Angela Davis, are sketchy at best. Respect also renders Franklin so larger than life that the low points of her story never feel grounded in a dramatic reality. Her descent into alcoholism particularly feels superficial, communicated in the broadest possible terms before being quickly resolved. The film defines Franklin either by her voice or her pain, and such binary terms ultimately disservice and simplify a complex life.
Super fans will probably eat all of this up, if only for the musical performances. But the movie’s best sequence points to an alternate path, maybe a better one. After Aretha signs with Atlantic, she’s famously whisked down to Rick Hall’s FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where she lays down “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” with a session band. Though a little uneven, the scene successfully captures the slow, bumpy process of artistic collaboration, in which good ideas are spontaneously introduced and the trust organically develops between talented strangers. Contrast this with the cheesy scene in which Franklin is too-suddenly struck with the inspiration to compose the film’s title track. Or with the scene when a woman stops Franklin in a hotel lobby to tell her that how it feels like she’s singing directly to her. It’s a shame Respect would rather hit the notes than play the music. There isn’t a doubt that the filmmakers behind Respect approached the material with admiration, but the result still became an overstuffed, overly simplified highlight reel cloaked in clichés of the genre.
Respect will be released into Theaters nationwide on August 13