‘Respect’ tracks the rise of Aretha Franklin (Jennifer Hudson) from a child prodigy singing in her father’s church to global superstar musician. Along the way, she suffers heartache and grief, and is for a time consumed by money and addiction, but a return to her roots brings her back to her soul.
How one can capture the icon that was Aretha Franklin is no easy feat. But ‘Respect’ does a decent job at covering what were the cornerstones of her life and uses music in a deep, emotionally resonant way. Hudson delivers the crowning performance of her career as Aretha, and when she starts to sing, it gives you goosebumps.
Other cast members who deserve a shout out include Forest Whittaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Marc Maron, and Tituss Burgess, who are all well cast. The show is stolen though by Hudson and little Skye Dakota Turner, who plays a young Aretha Franklin. Her singing is also breath-taking.
There can be a couple of clichés in ‘Respect’, including the “stop being a people pleaser, do what you want to do” spiel. Still there’s interesting insight into the music industry of the time and a race commentary that makes a punchy thorough line. We see Aretha figure out arrangements of songs like "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)," creating magic in the studio. We see the pain she suffers when in the wrong relationships, and the centrality of her family throughout her life. There are magic music moments such as when Aretha and her sisters come up with the “just a little bit” part of “Respect.” Her activism is touched on too, but doesn’t feature highly, unlike in the series ‘Genius: Aretha’ (in which Cynthia Ervio played the Queen of Soul) where it plays a central part.
Hudson captures the remarkable modesty and inner strength of Aretha Franklin, even as she becomes a megastar. She brings raw emotion and energy to the role, effectively conveying the deep tragedy of her breakdown into alcoholism in the film’s third act. What follows and distinguishes the last part of the feature is beautiful, as the themes of spirituality and forgiveness dominate. ‘Respect’ proves ambitious and enchanting, the musical sequences directed by Liesl Tommy (in her feature debut) staying with you in their spontaneous feel and skilful scope.