“I just lost my song. That girl took it away from me.”
Otis Redding to Jerry Wexler, 1967
“That girl” was 25-year-old Aretha Franklin, already a veteran performer and recording artist at the time, who aspired to be a hitmaker. The scene in Respect, released last weekend, where she and her sisters transform the words and energy of Otis Redding’s ballad into what was to become a feminist and civil rights anthem is one of the film’s highlights. Director Liesl Tommy’s lovingly delivered work includes a portrayal of the live performance of “Respect” at the Soul Together Concert–a benefit for the Martin Luther King Memorial fund at Madison Square Garden in June, 1968. This portrayal of the tune that many regard as Ms. Franklin’s signature song is so well composed, so stylish and exhilarating, it gave me actual chills.
The hallmark of the feature-length biopic is the opportunity afforded to the lead actor to showcase virtuosity. Think of Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues, Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter, Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do With It and Jamie Foxx in Ray. With Respect, Jennifer Hudson joins their ranks. Her performance is worthy of all the attention and praise it has garnered and surely will continue to receive. She inhabits the role and evokes Ms. Franklin’s spirit beautifully and with intensity. Hudson’s performance undoubtedly comes from a place of reverence (I mean, the Queen herself selected her), but it’s the opposite of imitation. It’s an inspired remembrance.
The film spans Aretha’s life from the ages of 10 through 30. She was raised largely in the home of her father, a prominent preacher and highly-paid performer in his own right, Rev. C. L. Franklin. A glimpse into the day-to-day reveals how she grew up with “family” including the likes of Mahalia Jackson, James L. Cleveland (the musical director at the Rev. Franklin’s church), Art Tatum, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Duke Ellington, and Sam Cooke. With that cast of influential, larger-than-life characters, it’s a small wonder she blossomed into the artist we know and love.
We’re introduced to Aretha as a ten-year-old being rousted from bed to perform in her father’s living room in front of such giants at one of his Saturday night parties. (The movie hints broadly at the raucous nature of these house parties, which were anything but sanctified gatherings and were said to have featured copious drinking and spontaneous orgies — Ray Charles, no prude himself, reportedly once referred to the Saturday night get togethers at C.L. Franklin’s home as a “sex circus.”)
Portrayed by Skye Dakota Turner, the child is a prodigy. Yet the launch of Ms. Franklin’s recording career was not so much a product of those family connections as it was spurred by her father’s ambitions. It was Rev. Franklin who brought his daughter to the attention of Columbia records producer and talent scout extraordinaire John Hammond, though the Columbia years proved disappointing in terms of helping Ms. Franklin find her style and in generating record sales.
The story behind Respect was developed by Callie Khouri (Oscar-winning creator of Thelma and Louise) and screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson (a co-producer on The Americans), who was hand-picked by Tommy. The scene where we see the child Aretha (Turner) magically transformed into her late-teenage self (Hudson) while singing from the pulpit is stunning work by the storytellers, seamlessly executed by the director and cinematographer. I was floored and still clearly recall the images in my mind nearly one week later.
Tommy’s visualization of the relationship between Aretha and her older sisters affords something special in its own right: girls who grow to become independent, protective companions acting from a place of love. The family bond is paramount and the depiction of the three sisters working as a trio of composers is captivating.
While the pacing in the last third of the film drops off with the absence of the kind of superlative musical performances featured mid-film, the story itself remains compelling. The portrayal of Ms. Franklin’s battles to overcome the psychological damage of sexual assault and her later alcoholic excesses —what are referred to as her “demons”— ultimately brings its rewards.
The conclusion of the film returns the exhilaration to the fore again, as Tommy presents a behind-the-scenes take of the making of Amazing Grace, the live double album of gospel music that marked Ms. Franklin’s self-directed return-to-her-roots redemption project and remains her most popular album. (The original footage itself was released only in 2018, having been shelved, unseen by the public, for more than 50 years.)
The Supporting Cast
Hudson’s supporting cast does amazing work, too. Forest Whitaker is a sometimes menacing presence as the domineering C.L. Franklin.
Kimberly Scott is utterly charming as Mama Franklin, the glue holding the household together and primary caretaker not only for Aretha and her sisters, but also for Aretha’s children. Marlon Wayans’ portrayal of Ted White, a hustler who became Ms. Franklin’s first husband and successor manager to her father, is both smooth and vicious (he received writing credits on some of his wife’s hits, which we are told were not earned for songwriting talent).
I wanted more of Audra McDonald as Aretha’s mother, Barbara. Watching her brief contribution to the film was both soothing and heartbreaking.
Saycon Sengbloh and Hailey Kilgore as the sisters, Erma and Carolyn, respectively, are perfect.
Mary J. Blige’s stint as Dinah Washington is so good, this has to be a performance that leads to meatier roles.
Two really special performances come from Skye Dakota Turner’s role as the child Aretha, and Tituss Burgess as the Rev. James L. Cleveland. Turner’s talent as a singer is immense, and her acting is a revelation—she amazingly captures the joy of being the center of attention and the horrible pain of experiencing the death of her mother at the age of ten. Her portrayal of the intensely scarring trauma of surviving sexual abuse (Aretha gave birth to her first son just before she turned 13 and a second son two years later) is gut-wrenching.
Tituss Burgess’s turn as the Rev. James Cleveland, another vital supporting figure in Ms. Franklin’s hard-earned rise to fame, is nothing less than stellar. His line to Aretha as she prepares to deliver her redemptive performance before a camera crew brought a much-needed release of laughter in our showing. As Aretha expresses her fear that the audience attending her concert might be too much, he responds: “What chu want us to do, behave like Episcopalians?”
Finally, Marc Maron is phenomenal in the role of record producer Jerry Wexler, who is responsible for convincing Ms. Franklin (she insists upon “Mr. Wexler” referring to her formally as “Ms.,” and that’s how they roll throughout the film) to travel to the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama to record “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You),” the hit that established her as an undeniable rising soul music superstar in Atlantic Records’ firmament.
Wexler’s contributions to the genre are legendary, and Maron’s impressive performance, an understated portrayal of the man’s energy and a contrast to the Southern music scene he championed so well, is a standout. It was Wexler who, responding to his star’s demand, brought the Fame Studio musicians to New York to complete the studio work only just started in Muscle Shoals and to back her up on the accompanying tour. (It would have been something special to see any attempt to recreate the percussion parts on the studio version of “Chain of Fools.”)
There’s never been a time I can remember when I did not recognize Aretha Franklin’s unique voice instantaneously when I heard it. I was well into my 20s, though, before I became aware of the person behind the music. I trust there are many folks unfamiliar with Ms. Franklin’s story who may be surprised to learn of her overt, passionate advocacy for civil rights. We witness her announcing to her father’s close friend “Uncle Martin” Luther King, Jr., that she intends to march in movement protests. We see her performance of the famous spiritual “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” as both a grief-stricken family member and devoted follower at Dr. King’s funeral. While a teenager, Aretha speaks to her father about her respect and fondness for counter-revolutionary Angela Davis.
In fact, though not referenced in Respect, Ms. Franklin brazenly offered to post bail for Angela Davis after Davis’s arrest for murder, telling Jet magazine:
My daddy says I don’t know what I’m doing. Well, I respect him, of course, but I’m going to stick by my beliefs. Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a Black woman and she wants freedom for Black people. I have the money; I got it from Black people—they’ve made me financially able to have it—and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.
(Unfortunately, her offer could not be fulfilled because the judge in Davis’s case required that she be held without bond.)
Ms. Franklin also attended and sang at the memorial for the prisoners shot down in the Attica uprising, captured on film as she gave her now-classic performance of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” with perspiration dripping down her face.
Respect is available for viewing only in theaters, which is as it should be. The production values are outstanding and the sound is deserving of the big screen. Don’t wait for its appearance on a streaming service (although there’s no doubt I’ll watch it again and again when it does show up on HBO). Go see it now.