Respect film review | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Wednesday, May 22nd, 2024  


Studio: MGM
Director: Liesl Tommy

Aug 12, 2021 Web Exclusive
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Up next in the musical biopic subgenre that has become more common over the past few years is Respect, a portrait of one of the greatest singers of all time: Aretha Franklin. It is important to note that this is the second Aretha Franklin-centered product to release this year. National Geographic’s Genius: Aretha, a mini-series starring Cynthia Erivo as Franklin, premiered earlier this year to much acclaim and earned Erivo an Emmy nomination.

With Jennifer Hudson playing the Queen of Soul herself, Respect explores as much of Franklin’s life as it can fit into almost two-and-a-half hours. The film begins with Franklin as a little girl, turning heads while singing at her father’s (Forest Whitaker) parties. In one of the opening scenes, she learns valuable lessons from her mother about her voice and singing skills being her’s and no one else’s to own.

From there, the film zooms through the rest of her childhood, making way for a portrait of most of the singer’s professional career. The bulk of the film begins with Franklin and her father’s initial journey to New York, where she is unable to find success with her jazz albums, covers of other people’s work, and live events. When she meets her soon-to-be husband, Ted White (Marlon Wayans), the two hit it off and defy Franklin’s father to go live and make Franklin’s career happen on their own. Franklin soon signs with Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron) of Atlantic Records and she begins to find her roots in the soul industry, shooting to the top of the charts with her catchy new sound.

While Respect is most prominently focused on Franklin’s career, the film also explores her home life outside of recording. Her tumultuous marriage——where White abused her, gaslighted her and consistently treated her like nothing—is explored. Her familial relationships are highlighted, particularly with her father and two sisters. Her participation in the civil rights movement is also briefly showcased, especially because of her close relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. both in childhood and adulthood. The film aims to paint a complete portrait of the singer and manages to successfully cover a lot of ground.

Similar to many biopics that have preceded it, Respect falls into genre clichés and traps. Even at its 145-minute length, the film feels completely overstuffed. The film shows bits and pieces of Franklin’s career and life without transitioning between these phases in a natural, true-to-life way. This becomes especially apparent in the film’s third act when Franklin becomes more and more unstable–relying on alcohol to get through her daily life and hurting so many people around her as a result. It all happens so suddenly and way too quickly. It becomes apparent early in the film that Respect would function much better as a mini-series, using the extra space and episodic liberties to dedicate more time to Franklin’s childhood and career (quite like Genius: Aretha). It’s still watchable and entertaining as a film, but it does play too often like a mix-and-matched sampler pack of various moments of Franklin’s life.

While Liesl Tommy’s direction feels relatively formulaic for the most part, her skills shine when framing and filming Respect’s musical performances. Two scenes early in the film showcase Franklin and her newfound band building a track with her vocals, piano, synths, bass, and electric guitars (among other instruments). These two scenes are so full of life and energy, relative to the rest of the film, that it’s almost easy to just forget all about the film’s shortcomings. If Respect leaned into that natural energy a bit more, rather than relaying the events of Franklin’s life in a direct and no-nonsense way, the film would have been able to rise above typical biopic fare to leave more of a lasting impression.

At the center of Respect is the very thing that keeps the film’s heart beating throughout: Hudson’s performance. Portraying the Queen of Soul in both her professional life and personal life is a daunting task, and Hudson rises to the challenge. Watching her play Franklin is always rewarding, especially in the film’s numerous striking music scenes. When the film isn’t working or feels tiring, Hudson is a complete saving grace, bringing viewers back into the experience and giving excellent covers of Franklin’s most popular songs in the process. (

Author rating: 5.5/10

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