Respect ★★★

Often imitated but never duplicated, the musical genius of Aretha Franklin transcended her medium. The legendary singer is rightfully regarded as not only the “Queen of Soul”, but perhaps the single greatest singer in all of popular music. More than just a virtuoso performer, Aretha Franklin was also a bold iconoclast who broke down barriers both as a popular artist and particularly a woman of color. Although a classically trained gospel singer her music crossed over and left a major influence on multiple genres, while her fierce activism and advocacy for civil rights also displayed a willingness to take risks and court controversy while using her platform for more than just entertainment. That she could achieve all this in spite of so many personal struggles and trauma is even more remarkable. Telling Franklin’s larger than life story and doing it justice is a tall task for any filmmaker, but director Liesl Tommy and leading actress Jennifer Hudson are able to rise to the occasion with Respect, an admirable and engrossing musical biopic that manages to hit all the right notes even when treading familiar territory.

Documenting the rise of Aretha Franklin’s path to superstardom, from her humble beginnings as a pastor’s daughter singing at his services to her early career struggling to define herself before eventually becoming a global sensation, Respect does mostly unfold in a manner audiences have grown to expect given the subject matter. What distinguishes Respect from lesser musical biopics though is both the extraordinary lead performance from Hudson as well as the confidence displayed behind the camera from its young director. More than mere mimicry, Hudson effectively embodies the spirit of Franklin whether she is commanding our attention on stage with her brilliant vocals or effectively conveying her pain and vulnerability in quiet moments. It’s an award worthy performance from Hudson who showcases unexpected emotional depths as an actress. Making her feature debut, Liesl Tommy also finds just the right groove in telling her story to hold our attention as the film’s tonal shifts move from empowered joy through the power of music to sudden moments of sorrow when Franklin’s demons take hold or the men in who life act cold and cruel to her. Credit must also be given to the supporting cast, including Forest Whitaker as her overbearing father and Marlon Wayans as her first husband and manager, each domineering men whom Franklin must struggle to break free from at different points in her life. The great character actor Marc Maron is also a pleasure to watch as Franklin’s producer who comes to learn the best way to harness her genius is to simply give her the freedom to be herself.

Respect is currently in theaters and will be available to stream August 27th.

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