The first cut of “Respect,” Jennifer Hudson’s starring role as Aretha Franklin, ran 5 and ½ hours. The final cut runs 2 hours and 25 minutes. Both of those times for this movie are too long.
It was nice that a female director and screenwriter were involved in the project, but Director Liesl Tommy is only known for “Jessica Jones” (2015) and “The Walking Dead” (2010). At the risk of being snarky, this film has about as much energy as “The Walking Dead.” It drags to the point that even Jennifer Hudson’s undeniable vocal talent cannot sustain interest in this overlong bio-pic.
Broadway theater director Liesl Tommy is working from a script by screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson (Producer of “The Americans” in 2013). Forest Whitaker plays Aretha’s domineering father.Mary Jane Blige has a role playing Dinah Washington and Marc Maron (“G.L.O.W.”) plays Jerry Wexler. Skye Dakota Turner plays Aretha as a child and is very good. These competent actors do as well as they can with a script and a film that is simply a showcase for Hudson singing Franklin’s hits, one by one. For that, you can simply play her records/CDs. This is a bio-pic that is supposed to be telling us about Aretha Franklin’s life, but one which glosses over many essential threads of the Queen of Soul.
There is an allusion to a childhood marked by sexual abuse, with Aretha giving birth to the first of four children at age 12 in 1955 and a second child at age 14 in 1957. Who was the father of child #1 and child #2? Franklin did not like to talk about her children during interviews and various answers as to who sired child #1 exist (one possible father was named in a handwritten will found after Aretha’ death and was the man who became her first husband, but other potential fathers were mentioned.)
Since the first two children were essentially products of rape, statutory or outright, Aretha’s reluctance to talk about those offspring is understandable. Marlon Wayans gets the role of the man who enters Aretha’s childhood bedroom when she is very young and molests her. Later, in the film’s version, Edward Jordan (Marlon’s character) and Aretha marry and he becomes the father of her second child, born when Aretha is 14.
But the children are barely seen. “Who is raising these four children?” Yes, we can look this up elsewhere, but even there the answers make it sound like a floating support network of random friends and family raised Aretha Franklin’s four sons.
Likewise, in looking up information about her mother, who divorced Clarence Franklin because of his numerous infidelities, we learn that she died of a heart attack before Aretha’s 10th birthday. Yet, in the film, Aretha is shown as a young woman of at least twenty preparing a meal for friends and bragging about how good her cooking is when the phone rings and word comes of the death of her mom. The movie doesn’t even have the news being given directly to Aretha, but to whomever answered the phone. There is no clear cause of death passed on to Aretha by the answerer, nor to us, the audience. We can find out (by looking it up) that she died of a heart attack, but shouldn’t a bio-pic mention what killed the subject’s mom? And shouldn’t it have been more accurate concerning how old or young Aretha was when her mom died?
Aretha was born in Memphis, Tennessee. Here is the house that is said to be her birthplace.
In watching the film and watching the celebrities who are said to have dropped by Aretha’s childhood home (and are pictured there during a Saturday night party), the home certainly must have been one that followed the Franklins’ move to New York (and, later, Encino, California and Bloomington Hills outside Detroit.) Aretha’s father, Clarence, did do well as a fellow preacher and contemporary of Martin Luther King. He was known as “the man with the Million Dollar Voice.” But the Memphis house pictured is a far cry from the comfortable old house depicted in the movie.
In an interview in the Chicago “Tribune” Hudson said, of her female director, “I love that Liesl was brave enough to allow things to breathe.” She remarked on how the actors chosen to play their roles were also musicians.
I don’t know what Hudson meant by “allowed it to breathe” but the inaccuracies (like when Aretha’s mother died) and the failure to address such things as “Who’s minding Aretha’s kids?” or “Who shot Clarence, Sr.., and why?” are not small lapses of judgment or tiny inconsequential matters in Aretha Franklin’s life.
Losing your mother at age ten is traumatic. We could make a guess that Aretha’s becoming a mother, herself, just two years later could be a consequence of such early loss. Her father—-“the man with the million-dollar voice”—-died of his wounds (shot during a break-in at the house) in 1984, when Aretha was 42. The phone call that came to Aretha to tell her about her mother’s death, looks almost like the director got confused about which parent died when. (The woman setting the table when that unsettling news reaches her looked closer to 42 than 10.)
There are allusions in the film to Aretha and her preacher father traveling together, with him preaching and her singing, but we never see any of that early beginning outside of his church. The entire flow of the screenplay, based on a Callie Khouri story, lurches along like that.
Aretha wanted Jennifer Hudson to play her in a bio-pic; they began meeting right after “Dreamgirls,” so it has been 15 years of waiting for Jennifer, a Chicago girl, to get to play the Queen of Soul.
We waited so long for so little.