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Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige as Dinah Washington in Respect.Quantrell D. Colbert/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

  • Respect
  • Directed by Liesl Tommy
  • Written by Tracey Scott Wilson
  • Starring Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Marc Maron, Skye Dakota Turner
  • Classification N/A; 144 minutes
  • Opens Aug. 13 in select Canadian theatres

The transcendent 2019 Aretha Franklin documentary Amazing Grace featured concert footage filmed at Los Angeles’s New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in 1972. The performance had marked a return to Franklin’s gospel roots, with the resulting Grammy-winning double album inarguably becoming one of the most acclaimed recordings of her career.

How did Franklin get there? The new Hollywood biopic Respect tells that story, with Dreamgirls star Jennifer Hudson capably inhabiting the early-career Aretha. Broad, melodramatic and occasionally entertaining, the film is essentially a prequel to Amazing Grace.

It begins in the Detroit of 1952, with a pre-adolescent Franklin (played by Skye Dakota Turner) roused from her bed to sing at a party held by her father C. L. Franklin, a celebrity pastor and civil-rights activist. She delights the guests with a version My Baby Likes To Bebop, made famous by Ella Fitzgerald. It’s mentioned that the pint-sized Franklin is 10 years old, “with a voice going on 30.”

The film begins in the Detroit of 1952 with a pre-adolescent Franklin, who is played by Skye Dakota Turner. Audra McDonald plays her mother, Barbara.Quantrell D. Colbert/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

The young Franklin endures multiple traumas and much advice. Her parents are separated. Her mother tells the prodigy, “You daddy don’t own your voice” and “no man can make you sing.” After her mother dies, Franklin doesn’t utter a sound for three weeks. The domineering patriarch (played by Forest Whitaker) tells her that nothing should come between her and music, and commands her to sing in church.

Fast-forward to 1959, and Franklin is a complicated young woman, to say the least. To say the most, she’s emotionally damaged, with “demons” vaguely blamed for the dark moods of her adulthood.

Frankin’s story, as competently (if formulaically) presented by screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson and first-time director Liesl Tommy, is one of personal and artistic tension. At 18, managed by her father, Franklin signs a record contract with John Hammond and Columbia Records to sing standards and jazz. Her father fights for control of his daughter’s career with her first husband Ted White (Marlon Wayans), a ladies’ man and svengali figure who slaps her around and takes credit for co-writing some of Franklin’s early hits.

White is the film’s villain, à la Ike Turner, the brute husband of Tina Turner (whose own biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It? also had a redemptive narrative and the name of a hit song as the title). Where What’s Love Got to Do With It? came with a sizzling performance by Laurence Fishburne as the abusive Ike, Respect is less served by Wayans’s so-so screen presence.

Hudson offers a consummate and compelling portrayal of the mercurial Franklin – whether as a put-upon daughter, standards-singing ingénue, increasingly assertive artist, civil-rights activist, nasty diva, meal ticket, one-in-a-million musician or an alcoholic. Hudson never lapses into hysteria, leaving the overwrought moments to others, including singer-actress Mary J. Blige.

Blige plays Dinah Washington, a popular recording artist in the 1950s whose star had faded a bit by the early 1960s, when, according to the film, she showed up to hear Franklin debut a tribute album of Washington’s songs at the Village Vanguard in New York. Instead of being flattered, when Franklin begins to sing, Washington goes berserk, flipping over a table and screaming at her perceived rival.

That all really happened – but to singer Etta James, not to Franklin, according to David Ritz’s biography The Life of Aretha Franklin. Let’s chalk that one up to poetic licence.

Hudson offers a consummate and compelling portrayal of the mercurial Franklin – whether as a put-upon daughter, standards-singing ingénue, increasingly assertive artist, civil-rights activist, nasty diva, meal ticket, one-in-a-million musician or an alcoholic.Quantrell D. Colbert/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

During the second half of Respect, we see Franklin taking control of her artistry when she signs with Atlantic Records and label partner/producer Jerry Wexler, whose beard and agreeable personality is captured splendidly by comedian-podcaster Marc Maron. In 1967, Franklin begins recording soul music at the now-legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama. She takes charge, directing white session musicians on tempos, tones and arrangements – great behind-the-scenes stuff on the making of such breakout hits as I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You.

Elsewhere, director Tommy lapses into the frequent use of black-and-white scenes to represent archival footage. It’s a visual change of pace in an otherwise handsomely shot film, but feels like an unnecessarily hokey trick.

As mentioned, the film ends in a gospel concert – not with a climactic version of the titular hit song. Franklin reworked the Otis Redding hit from 1965 into her own gender-flipping statement during the feminist and civil rights movements. Respect’s narrative spells out how she arrived at the song she’s best known for and also to the Amazing Grace live performance that went on to become one of the best-selling gospel albums of all time. On that level (and perhaps only on that level), the movie can be seen as a success.

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