It has not been an easy year for theater lovers, who have mostly made do with well-filmed performances of shows like “Hamilton” and “David Byrne’s American Utopia.”
In contrast to those projects, Liesl Tommy’s Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect” was created as an original film, but it works best when envisioned as a Broadway-style jukebox musical.
Tommy and writer Tracey Scott Wilson are making their cinematic debuts with this sturdy retelling of Franklin’s early life and career. However, they come to the project with impressive stage backgrounds, which inform every aspect of their approach. Any stage, of course, needs a star who can command the space. That the story intermittently recedes into the background might be problematic, were it not for the fact that the spotlight remains resolutely focused on a captivating Jennifer Hudson, who was chosen for the role by Franklin herself, before she passed away in 2018.
“Respect” actually begins with a 9-year-old Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner) just starting to understand her own gifts. Re, as she’s called, lives with her father (Forest Whitaker), the celebrated minister and civil rights activist C.L. Franklin. Life is busy — Re is often enlisted to sing at his Saturday night parties and Sunday services — but troubling.
Wilson and Tommy make delicate but undeniable reference to a childhood rape, which is soon followed by the death of Re’s mostly absent mother (Audra McDonald, underused). This is where her “demons” take hold, and soon the script skips ahead to the years when Aretha (now played by Hudson) begins pushing back against her controlling father and her husband, Ted (Marlon Wayans). Hudson, an Oscar winner for “Dreamgirls,” calibrates her performance with a lovely subtlety, so there are scenes when Re realistically embodies a shy church singer, rebellious young woman and confident musician all within minutes.
Realism, though, is not the filmmakers’ artistic priority. There’s a notable theatricality to most of the movie’s elements, beginning with a script that takes us from Big Moment to Big Moment. If Ted is holding a bottle of liquor, we know he’s about to get mean. When the phone rings, bad news will almost certainly follow. If Aretha stops to talk to someone at a party, it’s likely to be Smokey Robinson (Lodric D. Collins), who will say, “We are trying to put Detroit on the map. You gotta be a part of it!”
Indeed, most of the dialogue is of the staged variety: Every conversation is significant, the lines serving as announcements or aphorisms. “Don’t let nothing come between you and your music, Re,” says her mentor, the Reverend Dr. James Cleveland (Tituss Burgess). “Music will save your life.”
The same episodic approach defines the film’s foundational structure, which is primarily a collection of significant scenes centered around a beloved song. Tommy introduces each one with the place and date, so we swiftly travel from “Detroit 1959” to “New York 1963” to “Muscle Shoals, Alabama 1967.”
Fortunately, she’s collected a rock-solid cast to serve as our guides, so even though every character is there to support Hudson, they all have vivid moments. There isn’t a single weak link, but among the most memorable are Mary J. Blige as Dinah Washington, Saycon Sengbloh and Hailey Kilgore as Re’s sisters Erma and Carolyn, and Marc Maron as music producer Jerry Wexler.
Costumer Clint Ramos (“Lingua Franca”), production designer Ina Mayhew (“Christmas on the Square”), and hair and makeup heads Lawrence Davis (“Mare of Easttown”) and Stevie Martin (“P-Valley”) match each year with a meticulous precision suitable to Tommy’s theatrical approach.
In contrast, cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau (“Thor: The Dark World”) toils overtime to break the script out of its staginess. Various filters give us a feel for the different eras, while his camera constantly follows Re’s perspective, swinging back and forth to bring us into a panoramic party, or swooping up and down to share her insecurity or awe. He uses a different method for each song, thoughtfully contrasting Aretha’s quieter moments recording music in Muscle Shoals, say, with the transcendent vitality of a church service, or the overwhelming energy of a concert at Madison Square Garden.
At the center of it all, of course, is Hudson. It’s a joy to watch her transform from a shy preacher’s daughter to a Queen, and it’s no surprise that the film’s essential moments are its musical ones. Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, James Brown, John Coltrane and Hugh Masekela are among others who appear on Jason Michael Webb and Stephen Bray’s excellent and expansive soundtrack. The through line, naturally, is Aretha, and we do occasionally feel guided from “I Never Loved a Man” to “Respect” to “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” to “Ain’t No Way” to “Precious Memories.” But even when the movie stumbles, Hudson’s bravura performance — and those extraordinary songs — steady its soul.
“Respect” opens in U.S. theaters August 13.