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Film Review:"RESPECT"

Author: Kristina Cooper

Picture: Universal Pictures

Film Review:"RESPECT"

Jennifer Hudson excels as "Queen of Soul" and gospel singer Aretha Franklin in the biopic RESPECT, says Kristina Cooper.

Aretha Franklin, the great black singer and musician, was the acknowledged  “Queen of Soul”, holding audiences captive with her passionate performances well into her 70s. It was thus inevitable that there would be a bio-pic of her life. RESPECT, out this weekend, tells the story of her early years between 1952-72, when she was finding her distinctive sound and the struggles she faced with her authoritarian father and later her abusive husband, before she found God again and produced her best selling gospel Album “Amazing Grace”.

Jennifer Hudson, who knew the singer well, was chosen by Aretha,  to play the leading role as they had similar backgrounds.  And it is the perfect choice. The actress definitely nails it, almost channelling the soul queen, whether it is in the big stage numbers or sashaying across the lawn at a family barbecue to chat up future husband, Ted White, played by stand up comedian, Marlon Wayans.

Watch the trailer for RESPECT here:

Growing Up With A High Profile Preacher And The Civil Rights Movement

The cast is a starry one. Mary J Blige puts in a glamorous turn as Dinah Washington, a friend of the family, and the luminous Audra McDonald,  a well known opera and Broadway star and film actress,  has a cameo role as Aretha’s mother. If Aretha grew up in wealth and privilege, it was also one of disfunction and abuse,  all the more shocking as her father,  Rev CL Franklin, played by Forest Witaker, was a high profile preacher with show biz friends and very involved in the black civil rights movement.

The film opens with a 10 year old Aretha being woken up in the middle of the night  and told to come downstairs  by her father,  to entertain the party below.  The contrast between the innocent child in her nightgown wandering round the room with wide  eyes watching the adults drinking and cavorting and, waiting for the command from her father to sing, sets the tone for the film.

She doesn’t see anything wrong with this, as she loves singing, but we, the audience, do. After one of these soirees she is raped and ends up having a child at 12, and then another at 14.  Not much is made of this as these children are conveniently blended into the extended household at papa Franklin’s, and taken care of by the family matriarch, grandmother Rachel, while Aretha goes on the road singing with her father  to fundraise for Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.  

An Amazing Voice And A Difficult Life

The film is rather a marathon at almost 2 ½ hours long and my attention began to flag towards the end. It is always a problem with biopics. There is so much to say and what do you leave out? Even this film which concentrates on Aretha’s early years, tries to put too much in. Each scene comes across very authentically, but somehow there is just too much of it.

I also found it a bit troubling that church going and singing gospel music seemed to have only a tenuous relationship to the moral teaching of Christ, and promiscuity, drinking, shouting and slapping women around seemed to be the norm in her world.

Aretha Franklin’s difficult, messy life, as well as her amazing voice, all helped make her the mesmerising performer she was, as audiences sensed she knew their pain. Excellent though Jennifer Hudson was, the highlight of the film for me was actually when the credits rolled, and we saw  Aretha Franklin, herself at her piano, an old lady in her gold lame dress and fur coat, belting out the joy and pain that lies at the core of soul music.

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