The movie begins with the 10-year-old Aretha being pulled out of bed by her father, pastor C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), to entertain at a party, singling her out as a prodigy. Yet that gift parallels with a life filled with hardship, which doesn’t get any easier when the 20-ish Aretha lands a record contract, with her dad describing her as “a Black Judy Garland.”
Crooning ballads, however, didn’t capitalize on her talents, and before long dad’s counsel was shunted aside by Aretha’s relationship and marriage to Ted White (Marlon Wayans, effective in a dramatic turn), a slick hustler whose temper and jealousy go hand in hand with his conviction that he knows what’s best for his wife’s career.
It’s around then that “Respect” earns its biggest dollops of it, presenting the recording sessions that birthed some of Franklin’s signature hits. Not only do those sequences give Hudson an opportunity to shine, but they conjure an appreciation for Aretha’s artistry as seen through the eyes of the musicians accompanying her, always a challenge with this sort of biographical tale.
Still, the movie’s structure — directed by Liesl Tommy from Tracey Scott Wilson’s screenplay — feels as if it somewhat arbitrarily bounces from one moment to the next over what amounts to this pivotal 20-year span.
That stretch includes Franklin’s involvement in the civil-rights movement and friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. (Gilbert Glenn Brown), but it also leaves lots of material on the cutting-room floor, as evidenced by a closing clip and lengthy crawl that details what a force the Queen remained late into her life.
To its credit “Respect” depicts Franklin’s bouts with alcohol and snappishness toward those close to her, including her sisters, creating a flawed, three-dimensional character. The supporting cast also includes Marc Maron as producer Jerry Wexler, who respected his star enough to accede to her creative demands, though seldom without a good deal of exasperation and complaining.
The daunting task of translating the lives of musical icons to film has a compensatory track record of being rewarded with Oscar nominations, with “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Judy” among recent examples.
“Respect” premieres Aug. 13 in US theaters. It’s rated PG-13.