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Blu-ray Review: Respect

November 9, 2021

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Jennifer Hudson takes on the role of Aretha Franklin in Respect, a biopic of the late soul singer that is completely standard in its construction but comes alive thanks to Hudson’s performance.

Directed by Liesl Tommy, a TV director making her feature debut, the film begins with Aretha as a young girl (played by Skye Dakota Turner). Her Baptist pastor father, C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), takes delight in having her sing in the church choir, and waking her up to entertain the guests at dinner parties with her voice.

This first act also sets up the trauma that will continue to haunt her throughout the film, including being sexual assaulted as a child and the death of her mother (Audra McDonald), which renders her temporarily mute.

From here, Tracey Scott Wilson’s screenplay basically takes us through the highlights of Franklin’s career. The film dramatizes her abusive relationship with manager Ted White (an against-type Marlon Wayans), who oversaw her first several albums at Columbia that failed to light up the charts. This gives way to Aretha signing with Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron, making the most of his role) at Atlantic Records, who turned her career around by having her record at Fame Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, backed by their all-white roster of studio musicians.

The rest, as they say, is history, and Respect unsurprisingly finds its most rousing moments in the midsection when focusing on Franklin’s cover of the Otis Redding song “Respect” that exploded her into superstardom (and gives the film its title). In its best sequence, Respect shows her first hearing the song on the radio, working out a new arrangement in the middle of the night with her sisters (Hailey Kilgore and Saycon Sengbloh), and recording it at Muscle Shoals. This also allows for an impressive recreation of Aretha Franklin’s performance at Madison Square Garden.

It’s formulaic biopic stuff, sure, but Hudson keeps it mostly enjoyable to watch. The scenes at Fame Recording Studios in general are some of the best in the film, and the moments where we get to see Hudson’s Aretha working out song arrangements with the band members are when Respect really finds its rhythm. The 155 minute running time starts to feel a bit strained after this point, before the last act does a pretty effective job of recreating parts of Franklin’s 1972 gospel concert that was filmed for the documentary Amazing Grace (which finally got posthumously released in 2019).

The film does take on a melodramatic feel at times, and many of the characters on the periphery of Franklin’s life are underdeveloped. This really is a showcase for Hudson, who got Franklin’s blessing to take on the role while she was still alive. Not only does she deliver a fine dramatic performance, but she is able to do justice to the songs as well. For a film whose very title conjures up the sound of Franklin’s iconic rendition of the Otis Redding song, the music is a key aspect of Respect, and Hudson provides a number of solid Aretha covers on the soundtrack.

The film does a fine enough job of recreating the time period and it’s a mostly handsome production (aside from one brief boom shot), with cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau’s camera spinning around Hudson at key points. While the film itself is Biopic 101, with years and album covers flashing across the screen to show the passage of time, Respect features a good performance by Jennifer Hudson and has enough engaging moments to make it worth a look for admirers of Aretha Franklin.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The Blu-ray includes a selection of five featurettes that offer a decent look at the making of the film. The release comes with a slipcover that has embossed lettering on the front and side.

The Making of Respect (7 minutes, 20 seconds): An overview of the production, from recreating famous moments, to telling Franklin’s story, and the importance of beginning and ending the film with the church.

Becoming Aretha (4 minutes, 42 seconds): Looks at the amount of work that Hudson put into her performance, from working with movement and dialect coaches to learning the piano.

Capturing a Legacy (3 minutes, 49 seconds): South African director Liesl Tommy talks about what attracted her to the film, and why she wanted to tell Franklin’s story.

From Muscle Shoals (2 minutes, 57 seconds): A brief interesting look at recreating the scenes at Fame Recording Studios with the right microphones and instruments, as well as bringing back original musician Spooner Oldham to perform on the soundtrack.

Exploring the Design of Resepct (3 minutes, 37 seconds): Looks at the costumes and production design, and how they authentically recreated the look of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

Respect is a Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 155 minutes and rated PG.

Street Date: November 9th. 2021

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