LANSING, Mich. — Tom Santilli is a respected journalist and member of the Critics Choice Association, Detroit Film Critics Society and Online Film Critics Society since 2010. Tom is the Executive Producer and co-host of the syndicated TV show, "Movie Show Plus," which has been on the air for 20+ years in the Metro-Detroit market and Mid-West. He is also the film critic for WXYZ-TV. Twitter: @tomsantilli, Facebook & Instagram: @filmsurvivor.
Like the icon in which it is based, "Respect" takes what would normally be thought of as traditional, run-of-the-mill material and breathes an absolute fire of life into it, transforming it into something completely original and, quite often, soul-inspiring.
"Respect," based on the legendary Aretha Franklin - The Queen of Soul - is brought to the big-screen with care, humility, electricity and most important of all, a deep respect for its subject. It may hit many of the same notes often found in musical biopics, but when it's Aretha playing those notes, everything is elevated.
"Respect" is one of the best films of the year so far, and perhaps more importantly, it's the version of her story that Aretha herself would approve of and that she deserves to be remembered by.
That's not to say that "Respect" doesn't try to show the worst of Aretha, or that it tries to avoid the several obstacles and hurdles Aretha faced in her life. She has had an incredible life, with remarkable highs and life-threatening lows, with everything in-between. And still, she persevered.
First-time director Liesl Tommy frames Aretha's journey as one of faith. Her story begins and ends in the church, with "Respect" showing Aretha's wealthy upbringing as the daughter to esteemed Detroit preacher, C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker) and closing with her iconic 1972 performance singing gospel at the New Temple Mission Baptist Church in Los Angeles (the documentary, "Amazing Grace" chronicles the entirety of that soulful experience). The live album of that performance was her most successful, and though she had many trials and tribulations beyond 1972, her legacy as "The Queen" was all but cemented during that live performance.
Aretha Franklin passed away in 2018, but prior to doing so, she had hand-picked Jennifer Hudson to play her in a film role. If there is one other person on the planet that can even come close to representing Aretha, it's Hudson, and she delivers, from nailing Aretha's accent and mannerisms, to copying her stage presence and vocals. I say "copying" because, if there is any failing at all in "Respect," it's that there is and will always be only ONE Aretha Franklin, try as others might to duplicate her incredible, dominating aura.
In "Respect," we first meet Aretha as a young girl, who would come out to sing and perform at her daddy's parties, which were full of legendary performers of the time. C.L. Franklin was a hard but loving father who was not at all perfect, and his relationship with Aretha is a central theme in the film. It's also nearly too complex a relationship to properly parse, but Whitaker is stellar in the role. As Aretha grows older and falls for Ted White (Marlon Wayans), C.L. all but kicks her out of his life in disapproval. It's possible that in this instance, father may have known best, because as it turns out Ted - who would go on to manage Aretha early on - was abusive and a real anchor to Aretha's potential as a performer.
Aretha had a child at age 12 and another at age 14, shocking facts that are addressed in the film if not fully explored. As Aretha matured, she battled many "demons," including alcoholism, and in the film we watch as she transforms from a shy, timid little girl into the woman who would become a household name. As the director had originally pitched, "Respect" is about the woman with the greatest voice in the world, who is trying to find her voice.
The movie also shows how tough it was at that time in the 1960s for a woman - especially a woman of color - to progress in the music business. Aretha had several records that flopped before her first hit, but once she was given the right direction and management, she flourished. Aretha recorded at the famous Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and the scenes with her and her all-white band finding their sound, is among the best in the movie.
Aretha was also influenced heavily by those she grew up around, like the original diva herself, Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige), who has some delicious scenes early on in the film. Her eventual producer, Jerry Wexler (Mark Maron) was equally in awe and in fear of being on the receiving end of one of Aretha's wraths.
And while it's not examined fully, the movie also shows how Aretha was involved and affected by the Civil Rights movements, with her father being a close personal friend of Dr. Martin Luther King and how Aretha sympathized with political activist Angela Davis.
Many scenes - like the Muscle Shoals scene - feel familiar (we just saw Freddie Mercury and his band in a similar scene in "Bohemian Rhapsody"). And "Respect" does have the structural build of a traditional biographical film. But I always relate back to one of my personal heroes, the late film critic Roger Ebert, who had a philosophy that all films should be "judged" or "criticized" relative to genre...meaning, if you're watching a comedy, how does it match up with other comedies? Not every movie is critiqued with "Citizen Kane" as a reference point.
In that spirit, as far as biopics go, "Respect" is one of the best you'll see. It doesn't reinvent the wheel or overwhelm you with stylish choices because it doesn't have to...it has the greatest recording artist of all-time at its heart. The music is phenomenal, the acting superb (I would be in favor of awarding Hudson, Whitaker, Wayans and even Maron), and at the end of the day it's a loving tribute and remembrance. What more can a biopic do?
Over the end credits, actual footage of Aretha Franklin performing "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" in front of the Obamas at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors (of Carol King), brought me to literal tears. She absolutely brings down the house, like only Aretha could, and receives a standing ovation before the song even ends. If anything, it's a fitting cap to the film that precedes it, as it reminds us Aretha's gifts are not of this Earth, and no one else on the planet - including Jennifer Hudson - is even in the conversation when it comes to bringing what only she, singularly, can bring.
Genre: Music, Biography, Drama.
Run Time: 2 hours 25 minutes.
Starring: Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Audra McDonald, Marlon Wayans, Marc Maron, Mary J. Blige, Titus Burgess.
Directed by Liesl Tommy (feature-film debut).
"Respect" is in theaters on Friday, August 13th, 2021.
See an interview with director Liesl Tommy and star Jennifer Hudson below: