We all knew Aretha Franklin’s story would make an entertaining bio-musical, and “Respect” doesn’t disappoint. It’s as uplifting and ready-made for sing-alongs as any recent bio-pic, mostly because it’s just like them.
Tracey Scott Wilson (“Fosse/Verdon” ) is the credited screenwriter, but Oscar winner Callie Khouri (“Thelma & Louise”) came up with the story arc, and one of those two should confess to cribbing the structure and style of “Bohemian Rhapsody” before the ridicule steps in.
It’s a film that peaks with the recording of the title number and climaxes with a defining, emotional concert performance. And it scrubs its subject if not squeaky clean, at least sanitized enough for us to notice. Very “Bohemian.”
But “not surprising” also goes for the lead performances. You knew Oscar winning belter Jennifer Hudson was going to render the Queen of Soul as regally as the story demands. Oscar winner Forest Whitaker was never going to disappoint as her domineering, womanizing and abusive father, Pastor C.L. Franklin.
Broadway songbird Audra McDonald as Aretha’s singing, gospel pianist mom, Barbara? Another no-brainer in that she’s effortlessly imposing in the part.
It’s the players orbiting around this impressive leading trio who deliver unexpected delights in a film that leans on “Bohemian,” but has just enough “Ray,” “Get on Up” and “Walk the Line” sizzle to deliver.
Titus Burgess, flamboyant in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” is sympathetically soulful (and musical) as the church choir director who impresses on tiny, abused Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner, dazzling) “Don’t let nothing come between you and your music…Music can save your life.”
And comic, podcaster and sometime actor Marc Maron gives a dead-on impersonation of Jerry Wexler, the Atlantic Records producer who rescued Franklin’s career by pointing her to the songs and the sound that would make her famous, who learned to be deferential to the “Queen” and entered American pop legend with her as the “producer behind Aretha.” Maron is so uncanny in the part that he plainly based his performance on Wexler’s memoirs and TV decades of interviews discussing his “handling” of the “difficult” star.
That’s a running thread through “Respect,” Franklin’s frequent succumbing to “the Demon” that made her temperamental, mercurial and unreliable for much of her career. The script lays this at the feet of the rape that made her a mother in her tweens, and on alcohol, and suggests she found a way through it.
But she was blowing off concerts and personal appearances up to the day she died, one of the ways this script scrubs her image out of “Respect.”
The hair-raising, electrical musical moments in “Respect” come from the friction-filled trip to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where Wexler was sure he could spring Franklin from the mundane “jazz singer” trap her former record company, Columbia, spent five years and nine (flop) LPs building.
A Black gospel singer managed by an insecure, abusive husband (Marlon Wayans, quite good) shoved into a studio with a bunch of 1960s Alabama white boys, engineered by drawling Rick Hall (Myk Hall)? Yes, it came to blows. And yes, the session that preceded that abrupt exit produced “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You),” which announced her stardom.
And scatting with her backup singing sisters (Saycon Sengbloh, Hailey Kilgore) in the wee hours, at home to produce the “Just a little bit” and “Re Re Re” (Franklin’s family nickname) that turned Otis Redding’s “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” into the feminist soul anthem for the ages is a jewel of a scene.
If you aren’t moved by that, you should check your pulse.
Director Liesl Tommy graduates from her “Jessica Jones” and “Dolly Parton” TV movie background to features with a film that hits the waypoints of a legendary career just hard enough to remind us that they’re Aretha Lore, confirmed by myth and sometimes by fact.
And Hudson knocks the songs and the rising sense of empowerment that the Queen of Soul rode into a life as a diva’s diva out of the park. Her Aretha is sexual and soft, even at her most difficult. The intensely relatable Hudson makes Franklin likable, something the “Queen” spent decades defying.
The great novelty here is the depiction of Franklin’s middle class connected-to-the-arts0-and civil rights childhood. It’s easy to forget that Martin Luther King Jr. was “Uncle Martin” to her, that she sang and spoke out on civil rights issues, and that even as a child she was rubbing shoulders with Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald and “Uncle Duke” Ellington, thanks to her father’s prominence in Detroit.
Stately as it is, “Respect” never quite becomes a “great film,” but Hudson, Whitaker, McDonald, Burgess and Maron ensure it’s never less than an entertaining one, a musical biography that gives the Queen of Soul her royal due.
MPA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic content, strong language including racial epithets, violence, suggestive material, and smoking
Cast: Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayons, Marc Maron, Audra McDonald, Titus Burgess, Kimberly Scott, Hailey Kilgore and Saycon Sengbloh
Credits: Directed by Liesl Tommy, script by Tracey Scott Wilson. An MGM release.
Running time: 2:22