Respect for Aretha

The music is amazing. But it should be better. Am I asking too much?

Earlier this week I watched Respect, the new biography of Aretha Franklin. I paid for 48 hours worth of viewing time, but only felt like watching it the one time.

Jennifer Hudson sounds a lot like Aretha Franklin. My wife enthusiastically reported that Aretha herself insisted on having Hudson create her in the film. It’s a good impersonation. At times Hudson does a bit of a wail in her singing that reminds me of Aretha. But to me when Hudson is singing, it’s a broadway voice. Sure, Hudson has amazing vocal production, don’t get me wrong. She has a laser focus when she starts a note, sometimes soft, sometimes loud and sometimes then opening it up to something even bigger with vibrato that stays on pitch. It’s not quite as wild as Aretha, whose voice threatens to go out of control because it’s not the same sort of voice. Maybe I oversimplify, but I come back to Hudson’s origins on American Idol, where singers with this much accuracy are treated as suspect, a broadway-bound artist rather than the rock musician. Hudson is fabulous in Dreamgirls for instance, where her voice matches the idiom. And Hudson is a good actor, a terrific artist. But when the resemblance is too close it reminds me of a sketch from Saturday Night Live, like one of those imitations by Jimmy Fallon that has you saying “wow, sounds just like him / her”.

Maybe I’d feel different if I’d seen it in a theatre? At home where I’ve also binge-watched the Fosse-Verdon series, a good impersonation is simply not enough. I want insight into characters and their creations, I want something dense with meanings & if possible something profound.

I’m thinking too of Rocketman, Elton John’s biopic. You’ll recall that Elton had to approve of the story that he produced & therefore authorized as his official story. When there are places in the story where we wonder about accuracy we have in the back of our minds that yes, this is really auto-biography. Ditto with Aretha’s Respect. There are two children in her life that she had at a remarkably young age. She was 12 for the first, 14 for the second. But we hear nothing about how it happened. The children just appear and then are given into the care of her grand-mother, the details (possibly a horror story) seemingly redacted out of the story.

Aretha loses her beloved mom at an early age. Aretha is taken out on the road with her father, a fascinating minister involved in the civil rights movement sensitively portrayed by Forest Whitaker. Aretha was inevitably exploited by her father for her vocal talents to help promote his ministry. How his daughter was violated or seduced isn’t explained. Depending on your perspective, this is problematic, horrific, the big shadow lurking over her? I wish I knew what happened even if it’s totally mysterious in the film. There are gaps in the storyline. I get it, Aretha had a difficult childhood. Her pain is real. So just as with Rocketman we’re in the realm of the authorized biopic, strongly controlled by the artist. As in Rocketman Aretha also permits aspects of her story into the film that are decidedly unflattering, dark, troubling. Even so, I suspect her control stifles the picture.

I wonder if I would have felt differently seeing it on a big screen..?

Some of the best moments are scenes in recording studios, watching the process of music being made, musicians inventing licks and adding layers to songs. It’s stunning to watch. Hudson is persuasive sitting at the piano as a creative force while the musicians react to her. I love this part of the authorized story, ready to accept Aretha as much more than just that voice.

The film is especially good at the beginning, perhaps too good. We start with glimpses of the childhood Aretha performing for her family & her father’s congregation. It’s so believable, so organic, that it sets the bar perhaps too high for what’s to come. Hudson never fully persuades me, the way Skye Dakota Turner grabs me as the ten-year old Aretha.

As much as I admire Hudson, there is never the same kind of magic with the adult Aretha as we had at the first part of the film, especially when we watch Turner with her mother incarnated in Audra McDonald.

Skye Dakota Turner and Audra McDonald

This is the best part of the film.

I hate to sound churlish in saying that the film needs something more. I don’t know what that would be. Perhaps it’s more truth about Aretha’s children, perhaps it’s more than the one biographical plot line. I recall having low expectations of Rocketman, but being stunned by its brilliantly surreal combination of songs and story-telling. There’s nothing in Respect quite so illuminating.

But the musical performances are fabulous. If for no other reason than to listen to the voices, you’ll enjoy Respect.

Maybe it goes without saying, but I was intrigued that the familiar short-form used by family addressing Aretha was ”Re”. If you’ve been called “Re” all your life, singing “R-e-s-p-e-c-t” complete with backup singers going “re, re, re, re,” like her own cheering section, takes on a whole additional meaning. That’s an exciting discovery.

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