The first major biopic of Aretha Franklin opens in her hometown of Detroit. The year is 1952 and a 10-year-old ‘Re, as her family and friends call her, is woken up by her father, preacher and civil rights activist CL Franklin (a fearsome but fragile Forest Whitaker) and taken downstairs to a seriously swinging party. Played with a wide-eyed enthusiasm by newcomer Skye Dakota Turner – fresh from her turn as another iconic diva, a young Tina Turner on Broadway – she weaves around a room packed with the famous friends of her dad, including singers Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald as well as legendary bandleader Duke Ellington. Summoned to the piano, the young Aretha starts singing and blows away the biggest names in jazz and blues with a powerful, revelatory voice. In this simple scene her future stardom seems assured, but as the next two-and-a-half hours show us, the road to Aretha Franklin’s world-conquering career was far from easy.
Events which would shape the rest of her life are piled heavily on top of Aretha from a young age, starting with the fraught relationship of her separated parents through to the tragic death of her mother and Aretha’s first pregnancy at just 12, the result of rape by a family friend. Franklin’s second child is born not long after and we’re shown in stark detail how the legacy of childhood abuse impacts the rest of her life, via addiction issues and co-dependent relationships with domineering men, from her father to her husband and manager Ted White, played with a mixture of charm and simmering aggression by Marlon Wayans.
Jennifer Hudson takes over the role of a teenage Aretha as she tours the churches of the segregated Southern States with her father and “uncle Martin”, also known as Martin Luther King Jr.. It’s here that Aretha hones her exceptional gospel vocal, and soon record labels are interested. But with her father acting as her first manager, Aretha’s early albums of jazz standards all flop. Desperate for a hit, it’s not until she starts working with tastemaking producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron in full, giddy flow) in the late 1960s that she truly becomes a star.
With Hudson’s impeccable vocals front and centre, Respect manages to capture the alchemy at play when Aretha heads to Muscle Shoals’ FAME Studios to find her sound as she cuts her first Top 10 single, the soulful groove of ‘I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You)’. It’s here that the film makes sure to highlight the importance of Aretha as an arranger as well as a vocalist, and the same goes when she and her backing singer sisters stay up half the night finessing a ground-breaking new take on Otis Redding’s ‘Respect’, the song that came to define her seven-decade-long career.
Rather than just highlighting her incredible voice, Respect fills out Aretha Franklin’s story, focussing on her life-long commitment to civil rights, from singing at MLK’s funeral to her support of Angela Davis, and refusing to gloss over her struggles with alcoholism, abuse and depression. The result is a film with heart, as well as an awful lot of soul.
- Director: Liesl Tommy
- Starring: Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans
- Release date: August 19 (in AU cinemas)