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(Credit: United Artists)

'Respect' Review: A tired biopic can't sink the legacy of Aretha Franklin

'Respect' - Liesl Tommy
1.5

When my mom and I were driving home from watching Respect, the Aretha Franklin biopic that recently hit theatres, we came up with the perfect drinking game: every time the word “demon” comes up, singular or plural, take a drink. You’ll be guaranteed to be plastered by the time the credits roll.

Respect, helmed by first-time director Liesl Tommy, is everything that you would expect from a carefully curated biographic film: an amalgam of tired cliches and well-trod tropes that add no significant insights to the legendary icon Aretha Franklin. There are the talk of demons, the famous recording sessions that produce an artist’s biggest hits, the arcs of failure and success ad nauseam, and the overwrought dialogue that comes laughable when played as earnestly as the actors decide to interpret them.

This isn’t wholly Tommy’s fault. She guides the film with a fair amount of vision, hitting all the marks required of a director of this calibre while also shaping Franklin’s story in a way that doesn’t feel either pandering or harshly critical. But being stuck in the middle doesn’t do Respect any favours either.

There is a litany of real-life aspects to Franklin that are either ignored or sanded down for public consumption. A notable one would be that, despite being a heavy smoker during the majority of her recording career, Franklin doesn’t smoke during the film, while other characters do. It might seem like a small detail, but it’s indicative of the film’s desire to paint Franklin in the light that her estate is willing to indulge, and not the full portrait of an artist that had minor faults, not just major problems.

The exception is through Franklin’s drinking, which goes the other direction and becomes completely hamfisted and overdramatic. This is the biggest problem that Jennifer Hudson falls victim to in her characterisation of Franklin: Hudson obviously has a reverence for the Queen of Soul, and she’s one of the few artists with both the acting chops and singing ability to properly pull off such an iconic character, but the direction she’s provided either makes her a passive figure in her own story or a runaway train of excess, without any room left for introspection or critical analysis.

Aretha Franklin in the studio, 1967. (Credit: Alamy)

The entire film falls victim to every last “music biopic” cliche, to the extent that you don’t need to see Respect if you’ve already seen RayWalk the LineSelenaBohemian Rhapsody, and especially Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox StoryRespect lives in an alternate universe where the public at large hasn’t been smothered with exhaustively earnest biopics. There’s the standard arc of a tragic childhood, initial professional struggles, extreme success, turmoil and fallout from said success, and eventual redemption. Franklin’s life had so many more fascinating twists and turns than those portrayed in this film, and it’s sad to see such a legendary career reduced to the tired indulgences and boring redundancies that we’ve all experienced at music biopics multiple times over.

There were a number of parts where the in-person audience laughed at instances that were clearly not meant to be comical, like the scene where Franklin’s father C. L. (Forest Whitaker), threatened to shoot Franklin’s boyfriend/manager Ted White (Marlon Wayans). The entire film is filled with these scenes that are played completely straight but become hysterical because of their implausibility or complete tonal shift in the story’s narrative. 

Technical features of the film fall flat as well. The worst aspect of the film is the writing: characters directly articulate their feelings, refer to each other by clunky full names, and verbalise lines that are so overwrought and silly that you couldn’t imagine a real person ever saying any of the dialogue in the film. The sound mixing, especially during the live performance of ‘Respect’, isn’t nearly as dynamic or exciting as it should be. The editing is pedestrian. The pace is languid. The movie is ill-advised after a large meal or after 10pm, because you could run the risk of inadvertently passing out during the more “serious” scenes.

The movie wasn’t a complete wash, however. The scenes with Franklin in the studio perfecting the song ‘I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)’ with The Swampers is engaging and dynamic. But for every scene like this, there’s another that’s utterly ridiculous, like Franklin re-arranging ‘Respect’ with her sisters. If the “re-re-re-re” backing vocals featured in the song were really composed because her family members referred to Aretha as “Re”, then that takes away from the song’s incredible power because it’s the dumbest shoehorned-in plot convenience I’ve ever seen in my life. 

The good news is Respect can’t sink the legacy of Aretha Franklin. As the film concludes and transitions to the end credits, footage of the real-life Franklin performing Carole King’s ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ at the Kennedy Center Honors plays. This is far and away from the best part of the film: a segment that technically has nothing to do with the production. I considered it a sign: go find real footage of Franklin, either performing live or doing interviews of being a subject in various documentaries. All are more thorough and truthful examinations of Franklin’s celebrated career than Respect is.

My mother, who I consistently turn to for advice seeing as she has far more practical knowledge than I do, offered up one more incredibly important opinion on the way out: she believed that the film would be perfectly fine to watch on cable while casually flipping through channels. And you know what? She’s absolutely right. Respect is the perfect movie to see without effort, without payment, and without expectation. But when you pay full price to see a thorough, engaging, and original take on one of the most important and entertaining performers of all time, you expect more than what Respect gives you.

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