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There are moments when “Respect,” an uneven, prosaic but affecting new movie starring Jennifer Hudson as a young Aretha Franklin, comes close to pinpointing something true and revealing about its subject’s art. That may sound like faint praise, but it’s closer than many musician biopics get. Watch enough and their clichés start to sound like greatest hits: the troubled childhood marked by flashes of genius; the record deals and album cover montages; the marriages torn asunder by addiction, abuse and the ravages of fame. The music becomes a soundtrack at best and an afterthought at worst, something to paper over the gaps between traumas and milestones.
“Respect,” glossily produced, skillfully performed and notably developed by Franklin herself before her death in 2018, doesn’t entirely avoid these traps. But as directed by Liesl Tommy, making a solid feature debut, it rarely stumbles right into them. The script, by playwright and TV writer Tracey Scott Wilson, may be a thinner, more flattering account than this year’s unauthorized miniseries “Genius: Aretha,” but it also makes a virtue of some of its conventions, investing well-worn notes with fresh reserves of emotion. That’s fitting, insofar as part of Franklin’s brilliance lay in her ability to riff on well-loved standards; her 1972 gospel album, “Amazing Grace,” the production of which draws the story to a close, is a transcendent example. The song that gives the movie its title is another.
“That’s Otis Redding’s song,” someone protests in the early stages of Aretha’s soon-to-be-definitive reworking. (“Otis who?” comes the eventual rejoinder.) The unveiling of that 1967 all-timer provides a rousing mid-movie payoff that Hudson, whom Franklin personally selected for the role, tears into with unsurprising aplomb. But in some ways, the songwriting scene that precedes it is even more enjoyable: Aretha is up late with her sisters, Carolyn (Hailey Kilgore) and Erma (Saycon Sengbloh), teasing out the beats and flourishes that will make this version so memorable, including the infectious chorus of “Ree, Ree, Ree, Ree” — a Ree-petition derived from Aretha’s childhood nickname.
Did it really happen that way? Did Aretha’s caddish first husband and manager, Ted White (played here by a terrific Marlon Wayans), really come storming out of the bedroom, grumbling about the lateness of the hour? Who knows. Like a lot of scenes in Wilson’s script (drawn from a story she’s credited with alongside Callie Khouri), it feels neatly constructed to reinforce bedrock themes. It reminds us that while Franklin’s spellbinding talent was nurtured by her family’s collaborative musicianship, there were a lot of men who tried to control that talent, the very men who most needed to hear “Respect” and its mighty blast of defiance.
They included Aretha’s influential father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin (an imposing Forest Whitaker), a pillar of the Black church in 1950s Detroit and an embodiment of the tightly interwoven forces — family, religion, activism, music — that will shape Aretha and nearly tear her apart. In the opening scene, he trots out his extraordinarily talented 10-year-old daughter (a very good Skye Dakota Turner) to sing and wow the crowd at one of his house parties. But it’s Aretha’s New York-based mother, the gospel singer Barbara Siggers Franklin (Audra McDonald), who leaves the deeper impression, warning her not to let her father or anyone else exploit her gift — and a gift it is, to be given back to God and God alone.
The rest of the movie will chart Aretha’s flight from that core spiritual truth and her overdue, triumphant return to it. Bouncing from Detroit to Birmingham, Ala., to New York City and beyond, it’s a prodigal journey paved with chart-topping highs and soul-crushing lows, starting with Barbara’s untimely death, which sends the young Aretha into silence for weeks. She finds her voice again at her father’s pulpit, morphing in one sequence from the sweet-voiced Turner into the full-throated Hudson as the camera swirls ecstatically around her. (The widescreen cinematography is by Kramer Morgenthau.)