‘Respect’: The Power of Franklin’s Songs

Respect, in which Hudson stars, doesn’t — can’t — entirely do justice to such a vast talent, not least because Franklin’s life had an equally vast historical reach.

This is a woman whose life and upbringing didn’t merely touch on the issues of her era; she was born of them, tied to them. Her father, C. L. Franklin, was a renowned pastor and civil rights leader whose home saw guests as estimable as the major Black recording artists of the moment, like Dinah Washington and Sam Cooke (or “Aunt” Dinah and “Uncle” Sam, as a young Aretha calls them in the movie), and whose civil rights activism would encourage a friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. himself, with whom Aretha — armed with that legendary voice — toured and fundraised on behalf of the movement.

Add to that the other particulars — the death of Franklin’s mother when she was 10; childhood sexual abuse that would, as some of the movie’s clumsier but well-meant moments imply, haunt her for the rest of her life; battles with alcoholism, domestic abuse, and the less-tragic (but no less stultifying) rule of her father — and what you have is, well, the stuff from which biopics are made. It doesn’t necessarily go without saying that many of the best scenes in Respect are those focused on the queen’s music; the movie could easily have botched the job, in that regard.

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But director Liesl Tommy and writer Tracey Scott Wilson have — with the further input of Hudson, who as executive producer had the authority to make sure the “right songs” were in the film and that they were largely performed in full — given us a generous sampling of Franklin’s music, less in terms of the number of songs than in terms of the production’s attentive efforts to capture their power.

I can’t say I envy the task of trying to bring Aretha Franklin — one of the most enduring artists of the 20th century (and beyond), with a voice so singular that most other singers have been wise enough to spare her the flattery of genuine imitation — to the big screen. And for the Queen of Soul herself to have picked Jennifer Hudson to play the part must, for Hudson, have been a daunting honor, second only to being asked to sing a tribute to Franklin at the icon’s 2018 funeral.