Opening 25 Nov 2021
Take a big breath and sit back for 145 minutes of a detailed description of the life of Aretha Franklin, accompanied by more than 40 songs. Respect opens 1952 in Detroit and “Ree” (Skye Dakota Turner) is 10-years-old. She lives with her grandmother, her father Clarence Franklin (Forest Whitaker) and many full- and half-siblings. Clarence is a successful pastor in a Baptist Church; her mother Barbara (Audra McDonald), is a professional singer, on the road for weeks at a time. She is separated from Clarence but visits the children between gigs. “Ree” sings “My Baby Likes to Bebop” and her father immediately recognizes her talent. By the time she is twelve years-old, Clarence has arranged regular performances, first in his all-black church with the black choir. By 1960, (now played by Jennifer Hudson) she decides to work from New York City, recording with Columbia Records as a gospel singer. She leaves her own two illegitimate children back in Detroit with her father. One child is probably the result of sexual harassment when she was 12. Due to this experience, she refused to speak for months, not even on her own birthday. Her father still actively works as her manager, and she records an album each year without reaching the top of the charts. By 1964 she has married Ted White (Marlon Wayans), who takes over as manager; that provokes a break with Clarence. Producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron) suggests that she change to Atlantic Records in 1967 and sends her to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where she works with all-white accompanists. Her sisters Erma and Carolyn are her back-up singers. Gradually Aretha “finds herself,” which leads to arguments and finally a break-up with Ted (with whom she also has a child). She begins to change her style and by 1968, at age 25, she is number one.
This wonderful film has so much to offer that one must see it more than once. We learn about her connection with Martin Luther King, Jr. and her activities in women’s and civil rights, for which “You Make me Feel like a Natural Woman” and “Respect” and “Amazing Grace” are considered “signature” songs. She grows up in an all-black world and recording with white musicians makes her skeptical at first. She accompanies herself on the piano, with a bit of help from James Cleveland, the church pianist. Unfortunate events, including the early death of her mother Barbara, lead her to suffer under “demons,” causing contention with family and co-workers. An affair with her road manager Ken Cunningham leads to a fourth child. As she begins to take a grip on her own life, she moves from gospel to become the “Queen of Soul. Around age 30-35, she feels the need to return to the church to make a new gospel album. She marries Glynn Turan. This is truly a documentary and “Freedom” would also have been an appropriate film title. Here, names and events are factual, contrary to e.g., the film about Celine Dion (Aline – The Voice of Love). See Respect, if for no other reason than to experience the amazing talents of actresses Jennifer Hudson, who portrays Franklin, as well as Saycon Sengbloh and Hailey Kilgore, who portray sisters Erma and Carolyn, all singing her original songs. Do not miss it. (Becky Tan)