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In Respect, Liesl Tommy’s feature film debut about the life of Aretha Franklin (Jennifer Hudson), the ‘Queen of Soul’ music, is mired in a constant fight for agency and creative control.
The film offers a straightforward retelling of Franklin’s career and follows the ‘Think’ singer from her days singing gospel music in support of the civil rights movement (both matters important to her being) to her big-time success selling out arenas around the world. It is through this refrained touch where we see Tommy’s theatre background at play; an effect that allows the gravity of events to carry the emotional heft. Tommy presents as an actor’s director, and while her subdued touch communicates the experiences of Franklin in a clean-cut manner, it struggles to distinguish itself from other biopics.
This is not to say the film holds no merit, nor is this increased frequency of films that depict the experiences of women being mistreated by the Hollywood machine an issue. (If anything, it reveals the extent to which power was abused.) Had the film not been compelled into providing lengthy and arduous detail, an element that works well in theatre given the dialogue-dependent nature of the stage, scenes could punctuate instead of linger.
It should come as no surprise to learn Hudson, who had won an Oscar for her sublime performance in Dreamgirls, is mesmerising as Franklin. Aside from a near-replication of Franklin’s soul-stirring vocals (eat your heart out, Rami Malek), the astute Hudson composes herself with Franklin’s unassuming grace to the point of embodiment. We watch a young Franklin progress into a headstrong figure hardened by a lifetime of difficulty, particularly those stemming from abusive men in her life (Ted White (Marlon Wayans) and C. L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker)), the death of her mother (an underutilised Audra McDonald) and Franklin’s personal struggle with alcoholism. It is a journey Hudson delivers in sound and heart, with there frankly being no other actor better equipped to play Franklin.
To cover the life of Franklin, who had been selling out stadiums well into her ‘70s, into an almost two-and-a-half-hour film is an ambitious task, and one perhaps better suited to a short series. The film could have been more affecting had it concentrated on fewer aspects of Franklin’s life, with Tommy seemingly unable to find what exactly to remove. However preoccupied the Respect may be, for fans of Franklin, it offers a confronting look into the life of a modern-day virtuoso.
Ultimately, while Respect is a lengthy film, you should watch this for a powerhouse, awards-worthy performance from Jennifer Hudson.
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