Film Review: Respect (2021)

Aretha Franklin biopic Respect misses the mark with a shockingly bad screenplay doing this musical legend a real disservice

“We’re not done yet”

The musical biopic is always a tricky beast to get right and for a number of reasons, Respect falls flat on many counts. Covering the early part of Aretha Franklin’s career, it cherry-picks the aspects of her life that suit the narrative structure imposed here, in order to provide the ultimately uplifting storyline that has – deceitfully – been prescribed.

There’s no doubting that Jennifer Hudson can sing, and she interprets some real classics real well here, but she’s marooned in the film around her performances. Tracey Scott Wilson’s screenplay does her few favours and the story arc (by Scott Wilson and Callie Khouri) suffers from a real choppiness and a selective memory about the past.

We skate right over the sexual abuse by a family friend and the two children she bore before the age of 16. And the ongoing complexities of her relationships with her father and then her first husband, from adoration to abuse, are awkwardly smoothed into narrative bends that can then be manipulated towards the inspiring balm of Hallmark cards. 

Liesl Tommy’s directorial debut thus disappoints. Casting decisions go awry – Forest Whitaker and Marlon Wayans both fail to click as the father and husband respectively; and greats such as Audra McDonald and Mary J Blige are sorely underused. But it is the need to rewrite, rather than actually tell Aretha’s story that strikes the bummest note of all. Have a little respect indeed.

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