Aretha Franklin’s career, like soul music, began in church. Respect charts her journey from singing while her father preached, through her commercial hits of the sixties to her record-breaking gospel album “Amazing Grace”. Yet whereas Aretha would conquer the genre's two defining styles of up-tempo songs and slower ballads, the pace of her biopic is not so assured. A long running time, sudden shifts in mood and compression of key events all contribute to this film about ‘the Queen of Soul’ feeling somewhat soulless.
A Saturday night party hosted by Aretha’s father introduces the family’s close ties with the African American music scene, as guests including Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Sam Cooke are all mercilessly name-dropped. Not so identifiable is the party guest who visits ten-year old Aretha in her bedroom. Skipping forward several years, the film bypasses Aretha’s teen pregnancies and early career to find Reverend C. L. Franklin making the seemingly incredulous announcement that he has secured his daughter a contract with Columbia Records. Among the assembled guests is Ted White, who will eventually usurp the Reverend's control over Aretha’s life.
Adopting a perplexingly vapid expression to convey Aretha’s subservience to these two men, Hudson nevertheless takes control when on stage. Yet the opportunity to use the singer's empowering hits as a nice counterpoint is missed. As with many of the significant events of her life, Hudson's impressive performances are staged in isolation and often in quick succession. Like the oft referred to demons stemming from her abuse, there is little attempt to connect the many arcs of Aretha’s eventful life. The only constant through line is the singer's relationship with God and even this message is muddled.
Shortly before this film’s release, National Geographic aired the superior Genius: Aretha, an eight episode biopic with Cynthia Erivo in the lead role.
as Aretha Franklin
as Jerry Wexler
as Clara Ward
as John Hammond
Though Dinah Washington did object to a singer performing one of her hits while she was in attendance, that singer was Etta James. Recounting the incident to writer David Ritz, James said she ran to her dressing room in tears where, as with the scene depicting Aretha Franklin, she was later consoled by Washington.
There was no reconciliation between Aretha Franklin and her father just before she took to the pulpit in Amazing Grace. When C.L. Franklin arrived on the second day of filming, his daughter was less than impressed.
Biopic concludes with a scene recreation from the documentary Amazing Grace, which was filmed long before Franklin’s appearances in The Blues Brothers movies.