Aretha Franklin biopic Respect Jennifer Hudson Liesl Tommy

Aretha Franklin biopic Respect avoids genre pitfalls by focusing on the music

Jennifer Hudson stars in Liesl Tommy’s film, which takes a novel approach to the music part of the music biopic.

It’s probably not until I saw Liesl Tommy’s Aretha Franklin biopic Respect that I truly put the finger on something that I find particularly galling about music biopics: they’re rarely interested in the creation of the music despite ostensibly being exactly about that.

In most biopics, music comes out fully formed. It’s a cliché of genius shorthand to have characters essentially improvise their most unforgettable hits based on a line of a dialogue or maybe an overheard rhythm. It seems difficult to reconcile the idea that a person can be a genius and work hard at something without somehow knocking it out of the park every time, leading to many of the worst moments in recent biopic history. Respect is, by all possible metrics, a pretty straightforward biopic. It charts Franklin’s life in a fairly straightforward and familiar manner and hits pretty much all of the tropes one expects — but it also leaves tons of space to explore what it meant that Aretha Franklin was a musician, way beyond the personal dramas of her life or her status as a celebrity.

The film begins with Franklin as the 10-year-old daughter of high-profile Detroit minister C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker). Though her home life is fairly comfortable from a financial standpoint, Franklin’s home is a dysfunctional one, full of her father’s socialite friends and lacking the touch of her mother (Audra Macdonald), whom Aretha sees infrequently and who eventually passes away when Aretha is still a child. With her talent obvious to everyone around her, Aretha (Jennifer Hudson) eventually makes her way to New York, where she signs with Columbia and releases a series of easy-listening records for a predominantly white and upper-crust audience that fail to ignite the charts. She marries Ted White (Marlon Wayans), a talent manager and wannabe songwriter who treats her like a cash cow and attempts to wrest complete control over her career. Aretha eventually signs with Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron) at Atlantic and infuses her music with the gospel that was lacking from her first efforts, becoming a superstar in the process.

Inevitably, Franklin’s career follows a familiar arc, and Respect is not entirely devoid of the clichés of the genre. Characters barely age visually over the course of the movie, and the last third succumbs to the inevitable “hitting rock bottom” montage that haunts all music biopics with the protagonist sitting in a messed-up house holding a bottle of booze by the neck while staring dead-eyed into space. The opening scene has a young Franklin walking through the house and greeting each famous guest by name, a truly demented bit of exposition that thankfully does not reoccur throughout. All of these flaws are inherent to the genre and the structure favoured by Respect; at this point, they’re not bugs, but features, and there’s little point in raging against conventions that no one seems interested in circumventing anymore.

Within those parameters, however, Respect works remarkably well. The film’s strengths are highlighted with crystal-clear precision in the film’s best scene, in which Franklin and White arrive at the dumpy Alabama studio run by Rick Hall (Myk Watford) and find that the band is made up entirely of young white guys (the legendary studio musician lineup known colloquially as the Swamps). White first refuses to collaborate with the musicians, then produces a demo tape by one of “his” songwriters. The song is tin-eared and generic, but Franklin sees something in it, and proceeds to work out her arrangement and interpretation of it. The Swampers join in, one by one, with Franklin giving them instructions that they adjust to accordingly. Slowly, we watch Franklin and the band put together a song — not through some kind of magical genius as these biopics are wont to do, but through collaboration and work.

It sounds pretty simple when you say it this way, but Respect succeeds where most other biopics fail by putting actual care into the music aspect of the music biopic. It doesn’t treat Aretha Franklin like some kind of ethereal otherworldly talent and doesn’t treat each and every one of her songs like some kind of Earth-shattering treatise that bonded the world together upon release. Even if it has quite a few flaws when it comes to the narrative, Respect is one of the only music biopics that really treats their subject like a musician. Hudson is quite winning in the role, stopping short of impersonation and generally treating the vocal performances with the appropriate amount of period grit. (The film sometimes succumbs to modernized, American Idol type yodeling vibrato workouts, but even that is used sparingly.)

A movie like Respect really does put things into perspective. Seeing Tommy handle this in ways that are, on a surface level, pretty similar to the way it’s handled by the worst offenders of the genre has made me realize that perhaps the clichés aren’t the problem in themselves. It’s what you do with them. ■

Respect opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Aug. 13. Watch the trailer here:

Aretha Franklin biopic Respect, starring Jennifer Hudson, directed by Liesl Tommy

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