In a Hollywood landscape dominated by IP-based projects that entertain (or merely amuse) by delivering on (or slightly subverting) an established formula time and time again, the modern music biopic sometimes feels like the cheapest drug around. These films are often little more than glorified exercises in brand management. In between crowd-pleasing musical numbers that double as deferential fan service, actors in period dress-up dole out estate-approved biographical information at a steady clip. Everything from the music selection to the production design is designed to milk viewers’ prefab nostalgia. At this point, there’s little difference between how the industry approaches a legendary artist’s song catalog and how it adapts a comic book.
Respect, the latest post-Bohemian Rhapsody biographical drama, proves no different by turning the story of Aretha Franklin, played by Jennifer Hudson, into an overstuffed highlight reel. Tracey Scott Wilson’s script reduces two decades of Franklin’s life, from her early years singing in her father’s church choir through the recording of Amazing Grace, to a series of historical boxes to systematically check off. We watch her graduate from the choir to Columbia Records, then we watch her struggle at the label and under her father’s cruel management, and then we watch her sign to Atlantic Records where she becomes the Queen of Soul. Throughout, the film takes our emotional investment in this journey for granted.
Along the way, Respect shamelessly traffics in numerous biopic clichés thoroughly skewered by Walk Hard. Famous figures introduce themselves by their full names. The cast delivers expository dialogue that awkwardly offers or reiterates historical context. Montages of thankless struggle and glorious success pass in a blur. There’s a third act “dark fucking period.” Respect so closely hews to the Dewey Cox template that a potentially dangerous “spot the trope” drinking game seems inevitable. Franklin’s real life was obviously rife with drama worthy of the big screen, but Wilson and TV-trained director Liesl Tommy take a comprehensive, arrhythmic approach that treats major life events like soapy episodes or grist for the pop-psych mill.
Naturally, Respect leans on its ensemble to enliven the material. Sometimes, they do. Hudson stumbles on some of her dialogue , but she generally nails the musical sequences by infusing her own personality into Franklin’s work, elevating her performance from an impression to an interpretation; she brings songs like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Amazing Grace” to life, and it’s easy to imagine these moments inspiring sing-a-longs. Forest Whitaker, on the other hand, finds only two modes for Franklin’s father: cautious kindness and blusterous anger. Among the supporting cast, Marlon Wayans shines as Franklin’s abusive husband Ted White, conveying a bottomless well of self-loathing and insecurity. Meanwhile, Marc Maron brings some spiky energy to the table by playing Jerry Wexler like he’s Franklin’s bristly cheerleader, and Mary J. Blige steals the film for one scene as Franklin’s early-career mentor Dinah Washington. All of actors in Respect palpably strive to invest their scenes with real emotion, which only makes the trite dialogue and clumsy conflicts they’re saddled with stick out even more.
Part of the problem lies with Respect’s obsequious tone, with how the movie treats Franklin so regally that she feels more like an icon than a person. Wilson’s script weaves a potentially compelling thread by structuring Franklin’s story around the domineering men who govern her: Liberating herself first from her father and then her husband, she’s left to contend with the resultant trauma of her freedom. Yet, this concept largely dies on the vine because Franklin, as depicted, is less of a full-fledged character than a vehicle for her music. Attempts to fill out her personality by spotlighting her Civil Rights bona fides, such as her friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. and her avowed support for Angela Davis, are sketchy at best. Respect also renders Franklin so larger than life that the low points of her story never feel grounded in a dramatic reality. Her descent into alcoholism particularly feels superficial, communicated in the broadest possible terms before being quickly resolved. The film defines Franklin either by her voice or her pain, and such binaristic terms ultimately disservice and simplify a complex life.
Fans will probably eat all of this up, if only for the musical performances. But the movie’s best sequence points to an alternate path, maybe a better one. After Aretha signs with Atlantic, she’s famously whisked down to Rick Hall’s FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where she lays down “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” with a session band. Though a little uneven, the scene successfully captures the slow, bumpy process of artistic collaboration, in which good ideas are spontaneously introduced and trust organically develops between talented strangers. Contrast this with the cheesy scene in which Franklin is too-suddenly struck with the inspiration to compose the film’s title track. Or with a performance of “Think” that’s all but delivered to White after she no longer can stomach his violence, complete with close-up on Hudson’s face as she sings, “Freedom!” Or with the scene when a woman stops Franklin in a hotel lobby to tell her that how it feels like she’s singing directly to her. It’s a shame Respect would rather hit the notes than play the music.