My original plan was to spend an afternoon at the beach but because of the water quality and shark sightings, I decided that the other perfect way to spend an afternoon when the heat index is 106 is to go to the movies. Lucky for me that Respect opened in theaters that day.
The movie tells Aretha Franklin’s story from when she was 10yo in 1952 to the filming and recording of Amazing Grace in 1971, her gospel (and best-selling) album (released in 1972) and the accompanying documentary that was finally released in early 2019.
Little is held back. We see the good and the bad. Her father Reverend CL Franklin throws wild Saturday night parties and then preaches to save everyone’s soul on Sunday morning. Aretha is brought downstairs, taken out of bed, to perform blues song for the crowd. Soon one of the men at the party comes up to her room. We know what happened. And when her first husband hits her, we only see the black eye. What the director Liesel Tommy does is not fetishize the rapes and physical abuse. That is something that male directors do – they will show a rape or a beating from the man’s point of view and the director lingers over the woman’s suffering. It is not necessary. I suspect that being a woman (also the screenwriters are women – Tracey Scott Wilson and Callie Khouri), Tommy decided to tell the story without showing us the brutality. We are well aware of what the abuse has done to Aretha – what she calls her demons – and we do not need to see it all played out.
Not all the facts are laid out. For instance, we know that Barbara Franklin left her husband but the reasons are not laid out. One of the reasons is that CL Franklin fathered a child with a 12yo girl when he was preaching in Memphis. The child is Aretha’s older half-sister.
Jennifer Hudson’s singing is phenomenal. On Stephen Colbert she was asked how she made herself sound like Aretha instead of Jennifer. She said her voice coach said Aretha sang from her head and Jennifer sings from her feet. To show us, Hudson walked over to Jon Batiste’s piano and started playing and singing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” first as Aretha and then as herself. “Music will save your life,” is what Reverend James Cleveland tells Aretha when she is a young girl. And she finally remembers that and recording her album for God saves her life.
Several of the actors looked familiar to me and I was surprised to see the list of actors in the credits. These actors became their roles and though their faces looked somewhat familiar, I would never have guessed who the actor was. Tate Donovan looked and sounded so much like John Hammond that I would swear he had come back to life. Marc Maron was a delightful Jerry Wexler. Audra McDonald is always a standout. Biggest surprises were Marlon Wayans as Ted White and Tituss Burgess as Cleveland. (And it is always a delight to see familiar names in the crew credits.)
During the end credits, they roll some photos of Aretha receiving awards and then her performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center honors for Carole King. Seeing and hearing her perform is uplifting and transcendent.
The movie should be seen for the music alone. But it is also the story of one of the greatest American artists and civil rights leaders.
By Carene Lydia Lopez