I do love a good biopic, especially about famous musicians.
Respect is the story of Aretha Franklin. It tells of how she went from singing in her father’s church choir at the age of twelve to becoming an international superstar and the First Lady of Soul, but it doesn’t seem to know how to deal with those aspects of Franklin’s life that don’t fit in with the usual tropes of a musical biopic: the early flowering of talent, the big break, the battle with demons, the eventual fame and fortune.
For one thing, Aretha Franklin’s life course didn’t follow the typical rags to riches narrative arc. She was born into a milieu in which her musical talent was recognised and nurtured from a very early age. Her father was an affluent celebrity preacher who counted among his friends Dinah Washington, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Mahalia Jackson and Marvin Gaye (who dated one of her sisters). She said hello to ‘Uncle Duke’ and ‘Aunty Ella’ at the Saturday night parties in the rather grand Chicago home where she was trotted out to perform for these luminaries of black music.
There’s no doubt she was prodigiously gifted – she taught herself to play piano as a child – but the way the film tells it, it’s almost no wonder she found success so young. In an early scene she tearfully confesses that all she wants out of life is hits. Since she already has the adulation of an illustrious community, a recording contract and a successful live performing career, we aren’t sure why she deserves our sympathy.
For another thing, she may have had demons but it’s not clear how or why they arose. She drank heavily in early adulthood and her first husband Ted was a controlling, sometimes abusive man. Why did she make these choices? The film makes much of her close attachment to the beautiful, talented mother who left her philandering husband when Franklin was still a child and died soon after, but if this is what drove her to drink and a bad marriage, it sits at odds with the depiction of family life after the mother’s departure: Ree (as she was known) and her siblings continued to have access to their mother, unobstructed by either the father or the kindly, motherly woman who replaced her – the gospel singer Clara Ward, with whom Aretha seems to have formed a loving bond.
The film depicts a sexual encounter in the family home that left Aretha pregnant at the age of twelve. Shocking and damaging stuff, you would think, but the film treats it with sketchy ambivalence and is completely silent about a second teenage pregnancy. I had to google to find out that Aretha Franklin was unwilling to discuss these pregnancies throughout her life, although she did say the first one was down to a schoolboy friend. Respect simply shows in passing the apparently unproblematic absorption of two extramarital children into what looks like a big happy blended family.
I also had to google to find out how the mother died. She is simply shown as driving away from a visit one night, after which there is a dramatic scene in which young Ree reacts with anguish to the news of her mother’s death. But the death is not explained to her or us! It was a heart attack, according to Wikipedia.
The storytelling generally is plagued by too much focus on emotions at the expense of clarity about who’s who and who fits in where. We see heated interactions between Ree and the people surrounding her at the peak of her career, but I had to resort to Wikipedia once again to learn that the entourage was made up of her siblings and her children.
But even the emotional dynamics are sometimes incoherent. Dinah Washington turns up at one of her early nightclub gigs and throws a bitchy hissy fit when Ree starts to sing one of her songs in tribute to her mentor. ‘How dare you!’ says Washington, upending her table and smashing glasses. Next minute she’s all warm and fuzzy and telling a distraught Ree she should choose her own songs and not let Daddy dictate to her. There having been no previous indication that her father is forcing his choices on Ree, the scene is baffling and jarring.
Franklin’s reputation as a campaigner for black civil rights is confusingly explored. In an early scene we see her telling her father’s close friend ‘Uncle’ Martin Luther King – the two men seem to have been alike in being high-minded preachers prone to sins of the flesh – that she wants to march alongside him, although she never does. Later on we see her sticking up for black activist Angela Davis and railing against ‘the pigs’ who murdered King, but we don’t see how Aretha reconciles Davis’ advocacy of violence with the peaceful pursuit of black civil rights to which she, King and her father subscribed. It’s also out of sync with the open-mindedness on display when she insists on keeping the band of white studio musicians she feels can provide the sound she wants, over the wishes of husband Ted who wants black musicians on principle.
Respect is at its best in taking the music seriously. What Franklin wants is to create something new from the southern black gospel tradition in which she was raised, and the film succeeds in conveying her pioneering role in the creation of a more commercially successful secular soul blues. Jennifer Hudson makes a convincing Aretha Franklin and does a creditable job with her music. She ages well in the role too, unlike Forest Whitaker as her father, who looks exactly the same throughout.
The timeline of Respect stops in 1972 when Franklin released the collection of gospel songs that became her biggest seller. With the film already 145 minutes long, the filmmakers may have chosen this returning-to-her-roots end point because they simply ran out of time to fit in any more significant biographical milestones, such as the eventual achievement of her ambition to be in the movies. Instead they make do with a photomontage over the end credits of the real Aretha with her Blues Brothers co-stars. Perhaps it was too hard to turn Jennifer Hudson into the stout, matronly figure Franklin had become by then.
One final point to the film’s credit: a powerful use of the N-word. Ree’s abusive first husband Ted uses it – in full, unbleeped – to pick a fight with the white studio owner he accuses of flirting with his wife. It’s not true, but Ted repeatedly calls him a cracker and a hillbilly, and then insults them both by suggesting the man only wants a piece of n****r ass.
As a lover of free speech, I was comforted to see you can still use that word in an appropriate creative context.