Respect: Jennifer Hudson earns praise for Aretha Franklin biopic

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Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin and Forest Whitaker as her father C.L. Franklin in the film RespectImage source, Quantrell D. Colbert
Image caption,
Respect stars Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin and Forest Whitaker as her father C.L. Franklin

Jennifer Hudson's performance in the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect has been praised by critics, but the film as a whole has received mixed reviews.

The movie, directed by Liesl Tommy, is released in the UK next month.

"Respect gives the Queen of Soul the regal treatment she deserves," said The Hollywood Reporter.

But Screen Daily said the movie "resorts to a highlight-reel approach that reduces meaningful moments to mere stops along her biography".

Before her death in 2018, Franklin personally requested that the Oscar-winning Hudson portray her in the film about her life.

"It's more effective as a jukebox musical than a character piece, but the central performance and those amazing songs pull it all together," wrote The Wrap's Elizabeth Weitzman.

"Realism, though, is not the filmmakers' artistic priority. There's a notable theatricality to most of the movie's elements, beginning with a script that takes us from Big Moment to Big Moment.

"At the centre of it all, of course, is Hudson. It's a joy to watch her transform from a shy preacher's daughter to a Queen, and it's no surprise that the film's essential moments are its musical ones."

Image source, Quantrell D. Colbert
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Respect is released in the UK in September

The film also stars Forest Whitaker as Franklin's father and Mary J Blige as Dinah Washington.

Tim Grierson of Screen Daily said: "Unfortunately, Respect unsuccessfully interweaves Franklin's personal, political and professional lives, resorting to a highlight-reel approach that reduces meaningful moments to mere stops along her biography.

"Portraying Franklin - one of the last century's fieriest singers - is a daunting task, but although Hudson has a powerful voice, she can't come close to embodying the richness and range of Franklin's style. To be fair, perhaps no performer could, but the actress is also hindered by a screenplay that frequently views Franklin more as an inspirational figure than a multi-layered person.

"That impulse to lionise, while laudable, flattens Franklin's fascinating quirks and sizeable ambition, stripping her of what made her such a compelling, complicated artist."

Aretha Franklin was one of the biggest stars of pop, soul, gospel and R&B, who scored more than 100 hit singles on the US Billboard charts - from Chain of Fools and Respect to Think and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.

Image source, Quantrell D. Colbert
Image caption,
Before she died, Aretha Franklin personally requested Jennifer Hudson play her in Respect

Her extraordinary success was matched by an equally dramatic personal life, in which she survived abusive relationships and worked with civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King.

Awarding the film 2.5 stars out of four, Brian Truitt of USA Today said Respect "often loses focus, and sticks to its timeline without much nuance".

"The movie doesn't shy away from the dark points but doesn't expand on them either - one scene hints to sexual abuse as a child, and is subtly referenced later, though is never really broached fully," he said.

"One thing that absolutely works though, is Hudson, because it's hard to fathom anyone else playing Aretha this well. The Oscar-winner's powerful singing is no surprise to anyone paying a modicum of attention to pop culture - or who watched American Idol or Dreamgirls - but she's next-level terrific at capturing both the pain and the pride of Franklin's songbook."

IndieWire's Kate Erbland noted: "Jennifer Hudson hits a few high notes in a film beset by the usual biopic tropes and shortcuts, few of which allow for a deep enough look at the Queen of Soul.

"The film fails to touch upon some of the more painful headlines and traumas that besieged Franklin during her life and career," she continued, "including her decades-long battle with her weight and a deeper exploration of her parents' fraught relationship, while leaning into other elements that have only gotten attention in recent years, like the abuse she suffered as a child that resulted in the births of her first two children."

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Aretha Franklin died in August 2018, aged 76

Respect is not the only depiction of Franklin's life to be released this year. TV series Genius: Aretha, starring British actress Cynthia Erivo, was shown on National Geographic in the US earlier this year.

Erivo earned an Emmy nomination for her performance, but Franklin's family denounced the dramatisation, saying they were not consulted and "did not support" the show.

Respect received a broadly warm review from The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney., despite some reservations.

"Where the film starts to bog down just a tad, making its two-hour-plus running time felt, is in the unravelling of Aretha's marriage as Ted becomes more abusive, partly in response to his increasingly marginal role in her career," he said.

"It's a credit both to the filmmakers and to Hudson, however, that the movie withstands those wobbly passages and never loses our investment in the woman it so clearly reveres - a character drawn as both larger-than-life and fragile.

"Ending with the recording of Amazing Grace at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles was a smart choice, serving to tie up multiple narrative threads, as well as tethering the story to music that's inseparable from black experience in America."

Image source, Quantrell D. Colbert
Image caption,
The film has been directed by Liesl Tommy (right)

Maria Garcia of AwardsWatch took issue with some technical elements of the film.

"Tommy, a Tony-nominated playwright who has also worked in television, would have benefitted from more experienced film collaborators in cinematography and production design," she said. "The movie is so darkly lit, at times it appears monochromatic, and while interiors are carefully decorated for authenticity, they rarely lend depth, for instance, to characterisation or mood.

"Compensating for these shortcomings are Tracey Scott Williams's well-written screenplay, Avril Beukes's competent picture edit, and an excellent soundtrack. The filmmakers tacked on too many endings, but Aretha fans will revel in that, and in this well-researched movie."

According to Next Best Picture's Josh Parham, "the story here does find itself trading in many tropes the genre has been accustomed to, the most fatal being the scope of the storytelling.

"The occasional flare of direction helps to give vibrancy to the stale story and flat dialogue. The usual highs and lows one would expect to see in such a depiction are here, lacking any real creativity to make them fascinating."

But, he added: "There is no question that Hudson's performance supports much of this film. There is an incredible amount of emotional depth that she effectively taps into, often in a subtler manner than one would expect."