‘Respect’ review: Jennifer Hudson stars in bland Aretha Franklin film

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You’ve seen “Respect” before.

Slivers of this sleepy biopic about the life of singer Aretha Franklin can be found all over the place, from “Ray” to “Jersey Boys.”

There are the early scenes of little “Re” wailing gospel music in church in 1952, just like those of “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical” on Broadway.

There’s the lightbulb moment in which the soon-to-be Queen of Soul discovers the hook to the hit 1967 song “Respect” while improvising around a piano with her sisters. It instantly brings to mind the “We Will Rock You” recording session in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which I continue to hate despite your angry emails.


movie review

Running time: 145 minutes. Rated PG-13 (mature thematic content, strong language including racial epithets, violence, suggestive material, and smoking.) In theaters.

Franklin’s self-destructive alcoholism, fueled by the competing pressures of fame and family, was most recently seen as experienced by Judy Garland in “Judy.”

Of course, you can’t ding a film for presenting facts about a person. All of these things happened to Franklin. But it’s a movie — not a Wikipedia post. What we crave is to see events interpreted creatively rather than a straightforward telling that feels exactly like what came before it. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” was adequate, to be sure, but it wisely focused on Holiday’s struggles with the law and the controversial song “Strange Fruit.” That movie had a point of view.

“Respect’s” point of view is that Franklin was a legend. We already knew that. You can’t excitingly fill two and a half hours with the obvious.

Jennifer Hudson plays singer Aretha Franklin as she goes from little girl to superstar in “Respect.”
©MGM/Courtesy Everett Collectio

However, it’s clear from the credits that nobody made this film to advance the art of cinema. This is the first movie by director Liesl Tommy, who is better known for her stage work such as “Eclipsed” on Broadway. “Respect” was made because Jennifer Hudson was available.

Hudson is at her best, surprisingly, during intimate dialogue scenes in her apartment with her abusive husband and manager Ted (Marlon Wayans). You fear for her and resent her inability to leave behind the controlling, untethered men in her life, such as her father (a scary Forest Whitaker). It’s moving as we watch her become empowered to take ownership of her career and her music. Franklin finally begins to raise her voice above a whisper somewhere beyond the recording booth.

Oddly enough for the big-voiced Hudson, those sections are more gripping than the music sequences.

Jennifer Hudson plays Aretha Franklin as she tours the world in "Respect."
Jennifer Hudson plays Aretha Franklin as she tours the world in “Respect.”
©MGM/Courtesy Everett Collectio

When the title song arrives, sung in 1968 in front of a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden, we anticipate the same energy and passion the actress brought to “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from the movie “Dreamgirls.” That explosive number, which takes your breath away, won her an Oscar. The singing here, though, is more pretty than punchy. She doesn’t fully embody the fire inside Franklin until she sings “Amazing Grace” at the very end.

The supporting voices are sublime. Alongside Hudson are Audra McDonald, Tituss Burgess and Broadway’s Hailey Kilgore and Saycon Sengbloh. But the music, absent a believable 1960s sense of place or real concert atmosphere, doesn’t rouse so much as please, not unlike the familiar movie it’s a part of.

“Respect” settles for being respectable.

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