Respect Synopsis: This biopic follows the rise of Aretha Franklin’s (Jennifer Hudson) career from a child singing in her father’s church choir to her international superstardom.
Nothing says Oscar gold like biopics. Studios pump out an onslaught of posh semi-true stories in shameless attempts to garner acclaim from critics and award pundits. While some filmmakers push the subgenre to innovative places (Steve Jobs and Love and Mercy fully inhabit their subjects through their thoughtful forms and intimacy), a majority regurgitate the same by-the-books conventions without much artistry.
The latest biopic Respect places the spotlight on Aretha Franklin’s illustrious career. The soulful singer’s tumultuous journey should be ripe for poignant storytelling. Instead, studio heavy-handedness and disjointed storytelling leave audiences with a frustratingly inconsistent experience.
An Arethra Franklin biopic holds strong relevance to our trying times. Her evolving career radiates as a symbol of long-standing faith, female independence, and progressive civil rights ideas still to this day. Respect elicits its most effective frames when it leans into those conceits. I give screenwriters Callie Khouri and Tracey Scott Wilson credit for never shying away from Franklin’s hardships, creating painfully intimate scenes to show the personal obstacles Franklin overcame while becoming a transcendent presence in music.
While most biopics generate poignant performances, Jennifer Hudson truly embodies Franklin through her dramatic intimacy. The Oscar-winning actress imbues the singer’s range of experiences with raw emotional sincerity, never straying into the overworked theatrics that often defines performances of this elk. I would be remissed to ignore Hudson’s opulent singing abilities. Her beautiful range of vocals brings Franklin’s resonant tracks to life in ways few others could replicate. Co-stars Forrest Whitaker and Marlon Wayans also help in elevating their one-note roles. Both serve as damaging male figures to Franklin, ranging from an initially easy-going charm to abusive menace without feeling false in those drastic shifts.
Respect kept me semi-engaged throughout its lumbering 145-minute runtime, but the film never escapes the blandness of its trite formula. Like so many failed biopics before it, the bloated narrative sledgehammers Franklin’s rise to fame into a dissident series of marquee events. Few of these overdramatized landmarks register genuine impact, with the screenwriters relying too much upon the checklist deja vu devices to relay her journey. Whether it’s corny vignettes that dumb down Franklin’s songwriting process, oversimplistic speeches, or the overuse of busily crafted yet empty montages, Respect settles for the bare minimum far too often.
The overwhelming blandness is also apparent from a visual perspective. Director Liesl Tommy deserves praise for her sensitive handling of the film’s quaint moments, but she and Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau’s blaise aesthetics create the equivalent of a Lifetime TV movie. The duo rarely indulges in inspired techniques, shooting Franklin’s sobering highs and lows with the same stagnant framing and drained energy. Just a little visual vibrancy could have gone a long way in masking the material’s factory-produced aroma.
The audience I saw Respect with ate up its crowdpleasing formula, cheering during the resounding music numbers while reacting with dismay to each stumble Franklin makes along the way. I am glad the film is resonating with audiences, but the lack of originality and authenticity derailed the experience from honoring Franklin’s storied legacy.