Movie brilliantly depicts the ups and downs in Aretha Franklin’s life
Jennifer Hudson has captured Aretha Franklin’s struggles and ultimately triumphant spirit in a likely Oscar contender.
“Respect” seems destined to be a best picture nominee, and there probably will be Oscar nominations for Ms. Hudson for lead actress and Forest Whittaker for best supporting actor for his portrayal of the Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin’s father. Audra McDonald is deserving of a best supporting actress nomination for playing Barbara Franklin, Aretha’s mother, but the voters at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences might feel her screen time was too short.
There’s little doubt Broadway veteran Liesl Tommy will get a nomination for best director in this writer’s opinion.
“Respect” is showing at theaters throughout Santa Barbara County. Besides Ms. Hudson, Ms. McDonald and Mr. Whittaker, the movie stars Saycon Sengbloh as Erma Franklin, Hailey Kilgore as Carolyn Franklin, Brenda Nicole Moorer as Brenda Franklin, Marlon Wayans as Ted White (Aretha’s first husband), Marc Maron as Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler, Tituss Burgess as the Rev. Dr. James Cleveland, Kimberly Scott as Mama Scott, LeRoy McClain as Cecil Franklin and Tate Donovan as Columbia Records executive John Hammond.
Tracey Scott Wilson wrote the great screenplay based on the story by that writer and Callie Khouri.
“Respect” begins with Aretha’s life from her childhood in Detroit and how she coped after her mother’s death from a heart attack in 1952 at age 34.
Before that, Barbara Franklin and C.L. Franklin had separated after the latter’s infidelity. Although they never divorced, Barbara moved from Detroit to Buffalo, where Aretha lived with her during the summer.
Ms. McDonald, a brilliant singer and actress who stars in “The Good Fight” on Paramount+, was the ideal choice to play Barbara because of her great vocals and acting talents. The scenes of Barbara at the piano talking to Aretha, who very early on showed her singing talent, are priceless and set the stage for the rest of the film.
As the story progresses, Aretha deals with being pregnant with her first child at age 12. As a young adult, she goes on the road with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his supporters on their civil rights tour.
With her father’s support, or controlling influence, she signs with Columbia Records in New York City, but none of her albums are a hit. Recording jazz with an orchestra is not the right path for her.
Aretha succeeds when she stands up to her controlling father, finds her own voice and switches to a different recording executive, Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler, who teams her up with a Muscle Shoals, Ala., band. Aretha begins to put her own flair on her music, and Ms. Hudson captures the legendary singer’s vocal techniques and ability to improvise and arrange.
Aretha takes an Otis Redding song, “Respect,” and makes it better. And she starts making hits, one after another after another.
But there are struggles. Aretha had to deal with everything from Ted White, her abusive husband, to her drinking. With support from her sisters and friends, Aretha divorces Ted and eventually stops drinking with the support of her boyfriend Ken Cunningham (played by Beau Scheier).
“Respect” is a compelling movie, but like many docudramas, it plays a little loose with the facts.
For example, jazz legend Dinah Washington (played by Mary J. Blige in the movie) never flipped a table in front of Aretha when the latter, who idolized Dinah, sang her signature song, “Unforgettable,” in a New York City nightclub.
Actually, Dinah became angry with legendary singer Etta James when the latter sang her song.
But on another occasion, Ms. Washington, who knew Aretha and her family, did come into Aretha’s dressing room and criticize it for being messy. “Respect” alludes to that by showing the two of them together in Aretha’s dressing room after, in the movie’s timeline, Dinah flips the table in front of Aretha.
And Aretha actually married Ted White at the start of her recording career, not years after failed albums.
The movie plays around with some other biographical details, but its overall story is correct, and there’s corroboration that Ted physically abused Aretha.
Aretha Franklin dealt with that and more, but ultimately took control of her life and went against recording executive Jerry’s advice not to make a gospel album. She did, and the 1972 release became her bestselling album.
Ultimately, the Queen of Soul knew what she was doing.