Saturday, July 2, 2022

A. Scott Galloway Film Review: ‘Respect’ Filmmakers Honor Aretha But Abandon A Faithful Hudson in Unfortunate Finale

Jennifer Hudson as Aretha (poster)

*Aretha Franklin is an internationally adored American icon. It is a shame that her layered and complicated story was not brought to screens, big or small, within her lifetime…though the blame for that lays largely at her feet. Last March, National Geographic Channel devoted an 8-part miniseries to Franklin as part of its biographical “Genius” program that attempted to cover the singer’s life from cradle to grave.

Now to theaters arrives “Respect,” a wiser 2-hour-and-25-minute piece by director Liesl Tommy, screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson and story conceiver Callie Khouri surveying Aretha’s life only to age 30 in 1972 – the year of her groundbreaking Amazing Grace double-LP gospel classic that remains her biggest selling project within a career that was primarily focused on soul, pop and jazz.

“Respect,” starring Jennifer Hudson, starts strong with Aretha, already age 10, being roused from slumber by her father, “Reverend C.L. Franklin” (a masterfully nuanced turn from Forest Whitaker) to come downstairs to sing for a house full of legendary guests. The child being introduced to all of these giants alone will take your breath away and colorfully lays the foundation for her silver spoon beginnings. Of course, when lil’ “Re” stands before them and sings a boogie-woogie number (accompanied by Art Tatum, no less), she’s not just cute…she slays! “Young Aretha” is winningly portrayed by Skye Dakota Turner who is put through her paces singing, playing the top end of the piano, navigating her feelings for her two-sided reverend father, and adoring her mother who she looks up to with unconditional love. I emphasize “looks up to” because so much of Turner’s portrayal lies in her big expressive eyes conveying a full spectrum of emotions from musical elation…to consuming dread as she becomes prey to a party guest pedophile who impregnates her. That horror (which happens off-screen in this PG-13 picture) shames and confuses Aretha, resulting in several weeks in which she is so catatonic, she cannot speak.

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Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin and Forest Whitaker
Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin and Forest Whitaker as her father C.L. Franklin in ‘Respect.’ a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film.

A pivotal church performance morphs Turner into Hudson taking over the role of Aretha from a teenager onward. It is she who carries this film, supported by several quite wonderful portrayals. Right away, Hudson telegraphs the privilege, the ego, the saucy rebellion, the wariness, the woundedness and the fierce talent that Aretha was juggling at such a young age. Witnessing her slowly trying to put the pieces together of who she really is as a Black conscious woman in the civil rights era and, subsequently, soul music royalty to the world is quite impressive. That Aretha is not always a sympathetic character in this Franklin Family-approved project is also a pleasant surprise. Perhaps the greatest revelation is how men – from her father to her first husband “Ted White” (a mercurial performance from Marlon Wayans) – lean on and feed off her musical gifts…often taking credit for what they, yes, nurtured but are ultimately hers to possess and manifest.

Family looms large in “Respect.” The most prominent members are given warm portrayals from Hailey Kilgore as “Carolyn Franklin” (the pretty singer/songwriter sister who aspired to shine as brightly as Aretha but also supported her fiercely), Saycon Sengbloh as “Erma Franklin” (Aretha’s more reserved sister who was also quite the songbird), and Kimberly Scott as “Mama Franklin” who loved strong and unerringly kept the family together. Additionally, Tituss Burgess brings a sage and compassionate air to great closeted gay musical minister “Rev. James Cleveland,” a family friend who is there for Aretha at critical points in her life. Also strong is Albert Jones as Aretha’s later love interest “Ken Cunningham” who tries mightily to help her battle back her ‘demons”: a dark side that is conjured when memories Aretha has “blocked” randomly return to haunt her…exacerbated by booze. And in a blaze of dragon fire, Mary J. Blige lights up the screen with a brief turn as the great “Dinah Washington” that will not soon be forgotten.

RESPECT - JenniferHudson&MaryJBlige - Aretha&Dinah
Jennifer Hudson (left) is Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige (right) plays Dinah Washington in ‘Respect’

Musically, it is the scenes of Aretha working things out with the white male musicians of famed Muscle Shoals Studios in Alabama that beat out the staging of the live performances at Madison Square Garden and other locales in the U.S. and U.K. Indeed, watching Aretha’s mind work through arrangements, summoning everyone from her sisters to her children to flesh out what she’s hearing in her head are more fascinating to behold than the way she brings them to the stage.

The scene at home with Aretha, Carolyn and Erma reworking Otis Redding’s “Respect” into what would become an anthem for women the world over is precious. So, too, are “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Ain’t No Way” in the studio – the kind of scenes that music lovers will devour as if it is Re’s own fabled peach cobbler.

Of note here are the performances of Marc Maron as Atlantic Records executive/producer “Jerry Wexler” and all of the fine musicians of Muscle Shoals, particularly studio owner “Rick Hall” played by Myk Watford. Him standing up to some pompous race baiting from Wayans’ “Ted White” becomes quite a colorful encounter.

RESPECT
(l-r.) Hailey Kilgore stars as Carolyn Franklin, Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin and Saycon Sengbloh as Erma Franklin in ‘Respect,’ A Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film

RESPECT - Aretha Producer Jerry Wexler and Muscle Shoals Musicians
Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin with producer Jerry Wexler and Muscle Shoals Musicians in a scene from MGM’s ‘Respect’

The inclusion of incidental, non-Aretha songs is also exquisite by music supervisor Mandy Mamlet who slides in some Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane and Junior Walker pieces to truly soul-sensitive effect. The technical teams for wardrobe and hair are also to be commended as they get everything from the challenging changes in Black hair across the years to the finery of upscale Black garments and stage wear.
Sweetest of all, there are small gem moments that recall photos, album covers and visual memories that are tasteful and subtle – inside nods to true fans.

I will refrain from line-listing licenses that were taken. We all know how Hollywood approaches biopics. But it is unfortunate that we don’t hear any of Aretha’s romantic love songs in this film. “Skylark” is mentioned as one that Etta James said she would no longer sing after Aretha cut it yet we do not hear it. And the mega classic “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” feels more like a secular anthem to God than a loving man. It must also be stated that it was not Jerry Wexler who gave Aretha the title “The Queen of Soul.” It was African American disc jockey Pervis Spann who originally crowned her “Queen of the Blues” (following Dinah Washington’s death) on the stage of Chicago’s Regal Theater in 1964, if arguably a little earlier than she deserved it as she was then smack in the middle of a string of 9 failed albums of standards, light jazz and straight-up schmaltz on Columbia Records.

However, throughout “Respect,” Jennifer Hudson shines brightly fronting all of the phenomenal support. Which makes it so puzzling if not infuriating that she is robbed in the 11th hour of carrying “Respect” all the way to the finish line. After a tenderly supernatural intervention from her mother Barbara Franklin” (a glowing Audra McDonald) after which Aretha begins to return some control to her life, she decides to record a homecoming gospel album and agrees to Wexler’s suggestion that the church service be filmed for posterity. A deeply meaningful rehearsal of “Precious Memories” ensues at Los Angeles’ Missionary Baptist Church, reuniting her with James Cleveland, followed by Hudson’s spot-on entrance of Aretha walking down the aisle the next night to testify before a full house. Here she sings “Amazing Grace,” but as she is doing so, text begins appearing on the screen about many of Franklin’s later life accomplishments and financial generosities.

It’s understood that ending with Aretha putting God first and singing in church with her family in attendance brings the movie full circle. But to truncate Hudson’s grand finale with screen verbiage then cut away to footage of the REAL Aretha singing “Natural Woman” at The Kennedy Center Honors is a choice that abruptly snatches the motion picture into documentary territory. A savvier segue could have allowed Hudson to own the film to a glorious finale before turning it over to Aretha over the credits.

1972 was a monumental year for Aretha Franklin – not just because of Amazing Grace but its coexistence with her secular album of that year, Young, Gifted and Black, roundly considered among her finest hours, particularly regarding the styles of music she most chose to sing throughout her career. Side 1 alone contained “Young, Gifted and Black,” “Daydreaming,” “Rock Steady,” “All the King’s Horses,” “A Brand-New Me” and “Oh Me, Oh My (I’m a Fool For You, Baby).” She had been winning Grammy Awards in the R&B Female category for several consecutive years by this point. When she won for “Young, Gifted and Black,” she selflessly gave her trophy to troubled R&B/Jazz singer Esther Phillips who had released what those in the business knew was a watershed album, From a Whisper to a Scream. With everything that Aretha Franklin had accomplished (and overcome) up to that point and the triple threat of accomplishments in 1972 alone, THAT is when she unequivocally became “The Queen of Soul” – to this writer, anyway.

Having Hudson’s Franklin fortified by her return to Gospel in a church then rocking out on a major stage to something like “Rock Steady” to an audience peppered with women of many stripes thoroughly inspired by her music, style and presence, might have been a more exhilarating finish that telegraphed where Aretha was going instead of where she had only just triumphantly arrived.

MGM’s ‘Respect” starring Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin arrives in theaters tomorrow, August 13, 2021

– A. Scott Galloway
A. Scott Galloway is a prolific music journalist based in Los Angeles

A Scott Galloway
A. Scott Galloway

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