There’s something weirdly comforting about music biopics. You almost always know exactly what you’re going to get, from the story to the star to the songs. Cliches are cliches for a reason — many musicians experience the same hardships that come with fame. Does that make them any less entertaining to watch? With expectations kept low, the new Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect, offers familiar beats, iconic songs, and one heckuva performance by Jennifer Hudson.
Tackling a biopic of someone alive is a very careful needle to thread. When Respect was first developed, Aretha Franklin was still alive and famously endorsed Hudson to play her. Thus, do not expect hard realism when it comes to this story. Condensing someone’s life into two hours (or in this case, two and a half hours) is never going to produce a nuanced version of a star but rather the glossy, paved over familiar beats of a musician’s life. Early childhood trauma, men trying to control her at every turn, famous friends, female empowerment songs, a dark period dealing with addiction, it’s all there. It feels cruel to call such events “cliches”, this is a real person’s life after all, but the inescapable reality is that many musicians seem to go through similar problems and a film can’t do much more than summarize.
Peppered in are comforting and familiar songs sung by Hudson, who puts her whole heart and soul into this performance and looks beautiful doing it. While her imitation of Aretha’s speaking voice is jarring at first, you adjust eventually. Adding to a sense of familiarity is the rest of the cast, particularly Forest Whitaker as her father Rev. C.L. Franklin and Audra McDonald as her mother Barbara. Here they are doing what they do best. Whitaker is dramatic and serious while Audra is warm with a stellar voice. Marlon Wayans is a pleasant surprise as controlling husband Ted White, Marc Maron is playing yet another record producer, and Tituss Burgess gets a wonderful role as Aretha’s friend and gospel icon James Cleveland, a much more subdued character than his role on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
The film is incredibly sleek with beautiful locations, stunning costumes, and gorgeous lighting. It’s expensive dressing for a film we’ve all seen before. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. There’s something comforting about it in 2021. While we’ve spent the last 18 months dealing with wave after wave of unprecedented events, here’s a film that is all too familiar. We know exactly what to expect and we can have fun watching the story of an icon — even if it is sanitized and condensed.
Like many music biopics, Respect leaves you wanting more. Soon you’ll be down a YouTube rabbit hole of Aretha Franklin performances, pulling up Spotify playlists and doing some web sleuthing about what may have been missing from her ultra-condensed story. Maybe you’ll finally hit play on Nat Geo’s limited series Genius: Aretha. That’s all part of the music biopic’s plan as well. A film like this could introduce her music to a whole new generation, kickstarting sales and demand for the late artist. Whatever your opinion on these sorts of biopics, you can be certain Respect won’t be the last.