Film

Respect review: Jennifer Hudson is sensational as Aretha Franklin

An Aretha Franklin biopic is enjoyable – but there could be a sharper story to be told about the soul legend, writes Simon Brew.

It’s a brave soul who steps into the shoes of Aretha Franklin, but chief among the reasons to see this new biopic of her is Jennifer Hudson.

Already an Oscar winner for her stunning turn in the screen adaptation of the musical Dreamgirls, she’s surely a contender for Academy Award gold again off the back of Respect. The broader film around her? Well, perhaps less so.

The idea of an Aretha Franklin biopic has been cooking for a long time, and the iconic music star was actively involved in its development up to her death in 2018.

The final movie has ended up in the capable hands of director Liesl Tommy and writers Tracey Scott Wilson and Callie Khouri. What they’ve fashioned between them is a film that certainly celebrates Franklin’s life, but also one that never really leaps off the screen.

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It’s always tricky to criticise the narrative structure of a film so closely mirroring someone’s life, and most films of this ilk thus follow a rise, fall, and then rise again story organically.

There’s certainly a flavour of that here, but also it’s a loyal film, determined to do right by its subject. That’s very much admirable, but also it means that the film is reluctant to move outside its tramlines. It wants to bite off a large chunk of Franklin’s story, and tell it as faithfully as possible.

That much it achieves, but there’s no getting away from the exhaustive length we’re left with. Running to just shy of two-and-a-half hours, in particular it’s the early sequences establishing Franklin’s tricky relationship with her father – played by Forest Whitaker – that eats up a lot of screen time without giving us too much depth.

It puts in the foundations of her story but offers little beyond that. It’s a repeated problem throughout the movie. It very much goes to some incredibly dark places, and certainly can’t be accused of shying away from the abuse that Franklin endured and suffered. But it’s less clear how she came through it all and how it shaped her. Instead, the film focuses on the fact that she did.

Which is all fine, and we’re left with an entertaining and moving film at the end of it all.

Hudson is sensational, not least when she re-enacts some of Franklin’s songbook. In fairness too, there’s some effort put into showing how Franklin shaped the production of her music behind the scenes – the putting-together-a-record stuff is a notable upgrade on something like Bohemian Rhapsody – and, at the least, you’re likely to come to the finale wanting to know more. Not least when footage of the real deal is played over the end credits.

Taken as a Hollywood biopic, Respect does an admirable job. What it might lack in teeth it makes up for in standout performances not just from Hudson, but also in compelling work from Marlon Wayans, Marc Maron and the aforementioned Whitaker, too.

It’s no definitive work, but it deserves success. For Hudson, at the very least, don’t be surprised it if attracts more of it.

Three out of five stars

Respect is in cinemas from September 10

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