“Respect,” with Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin, is pretty much your standard biopic: a famous name, often in the company of other famous names, enduring (and generating) lots of emotion along the way. There are tribulations and trials to make the biopic-ee’s triumph relatable as well as awe-inspiring — and with this particular biopic-ee, the awe is both considerable and deserved. Hudson, who does her own singing — brave woman! — definitely holds up her end.
It’s a good enough movie, if no more than that. There’s a moment, though, that’s in no way standard. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen because it puts onscreen a moment unlike anything that had ever happened, and it’s thrilling.
Aretha (referring to her as “Franklin” would be like referring to Elizabeth II as “Windsor” — accurate but completely missing the point) has gone to Muscle Shoals, Ala., to make her first recording for Atlantic Records. This is 1967. She’d already released nine albums on Columbia, but the label had kept her in a musical straitjacket, burdened with traditional song choices and even more traditional arrangements. Actually, chrysalis is a better word than straitjacket. A stupendously gifted caterpillar is about to emerge as a monarch butterfly … monarch as in queen … queen as in Queen of Soul.
Aretha and some session musicians are in the studio with her husband, Ted White (Marlon Wayans), and producer, Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron). She’s sitting at the piano, messing around with what would become her first Atlantic single, and the title of her first album for the label, “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You).” The recording is emotional magma rendered as music. Or maybe vice versa. Either way, Aretha here is still drilling down to extract it.
She knows what she wants, but she’s not getting it from the musicians. One of them, the great Spooner Oldham (David Simpson), comes up with a lick on the organ. He and Aretha exchange a look. They lock in at their respective keyboards. It’s as simple as that, and the director, Liesl Tommy (making her feature debut), has the good sense not to overdo it. Oldham gets what Aretha’s trying to do. She gets that he gets it. They know. What they don’t know, but we do, is that at that instant her life has changed — and so has American music. Take every car chase in “F9” and fight in “Black Widow” and explosion in “The Suicide Squad,” and all of them together can’t compete with that moment.
“Respect” begins in Detroit in 1952, with 10-year-old Ree (a very good Skye Dakota Turner) coming downstairs at a party to sing a song for her father’s guests. The guests include the likes of Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige), Sam Cooke, and Art Tatum (who accompanies Aretha). Their appreciation indicates just how talented young Ree is. Their presence indicates the stature of Aretha’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker) in the Black community. He was a superstar long before she was — and that will be a problem. A controlling parent is a bad thing. A controlling parent who turns competitive is a lot worse.
“Your Daddy doesn’t own your voice, Ree, only God,” her mother tells her. “And you don’t have to fear any man.” Aretha’s mother and father are estranged and live apart. A radiant Audra McDonald has only a handful of scenes as Barbara Franklin. The final one, a fantasy sequence, shows how schlocky “Respect” can get, which is pretty schlocky.
Aretha wasn’t quite 10 when her mother died. It was the first of several upheavals she would suffer. She became a mother at 12, then again at 15, which the movie acknowledges, if indirectly. More generally, there’s “the demon,” as she calls her dark side, a susceptibility to alcohol, anger, and emotional instability. Emotional instability? That’s where Ted White comes in. The movie’s a bit opaque on chronology, and Aretha seems older when she marries him than she was in real life, 18.
“Respect” now enters classic biopic territory: exaltation in public, something very different in private. Wayans makes us see what attracts Aretha. He’s dangerous and sexy and assured — so assured that he can tell C.L. to his face, “You’re the greatest hustler I’ve ever seen.” Both father and daughter realize that’s no compliment, and they have diametrically opposed reactions to hearing it. Wayans also lets us see Ted’s not-inconsiderable limitations. If anything, Tracey Scott Wilson and Callie Khouri’s script lets him off a little easy. The real-life Ted was definitely not an attractive character.
Three years after her death, at 76, we are in an Aretha moment. Earlier this year, Cynthia Erivo starred in the National Geographic series “Genius: Aretha,” earning an Emmy nomination. The turbulence of the life and the wondrousness of the talent are an irresistible combination. Striking a balance between the two isn’t easy, but at its conclusion “Respect” finds a way to bring together woman and artist in a way that does justice to both.
It does so with the gospel performances that produced one of Aretha’s most magnificent recordings, “Amazing Grace” (1972), as well as the 2018 concert documentary of the same name (which can be streamed on Amazon Prime and Hulu).
Aretha’s not in good shape: collapsing onstage in Georgia, drinking too much, generally behaving in high-diva mode. She decides to go back to her musical roots. She turns to a family friend, the Rev. James Cleveland (Tituss Burgess), to set up the concerts and accompany her. The performances raise the roof and elevate the movie. The wisdom of the advice Cleveland offered after her mother’s death is amply demonstrated. “Don’t let nothing come between you and your music, Ree. It will save your life.” It helps save this movie of her life, too.
Directed by Liesl Tommy. Written by Tracey Scott Wilson and Callie Khouri. Starring Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Audra McDonald, Marlon Wayans, Marc Maron. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, suburbs. 145 minutes. PG-13 (mature thematic content, strong language).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.