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Jennifer Hudson's strong voice can't save formulaic 'Respect'

If you're going to do an Aretha Franklin movie, do it right. Give it something extra instead of the paint-by-numbers brush stroke seen here.
Credit: MGM
R_21163_RC Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin in RESPECT A Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert

ST. LOUIS — "Respect," the new Aretha Franklin with a tailor-made Jennifer Hudson in the starring role, sure looks nice from a distance. The trailer pops, soaking its entire being into the two minute tease. The poster screams, "Listen up and start moving your hips!" The knock on Oscar's door here isn't particularly subtle or understated.

It's too bad the movie that follows all of that hype is a real letdown.

Here's the thing. This is a biopic factory-manufactured telling of Franklin's story, lacking substance and coming off as one of the legendary singer's early albums: robotic, overly produced, and lacking any sizzle. Some films look and feel like they were made for a bare-bone reason, and this isn't it. Her life demanded more authenticity, and Liesl Tommy's film lacks it in key areas. Pivotal elements like a script with focus and cinematography that doesn't tread over the same path as the last 50 biopics. Show me something new, or call the documentary audible.

Instead of carving out a few important parts of her life and leaning into those life-changing moments, Tommy's film rides like a painfully long bus tour of Franklin's highs and lows, moving quickly with little time for introspection. But when "Respect" does slow down, it does so to a deafening crawl. The pacing issue never subsides in this near 2.5 hour film, one that jams a bunch of accomplishment info right before the end credits--like telling the audience, "this is all the cool stuff she did that we simply overlooked."

While I know Franklin chased demons and had an awful childhood, Tommy and screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson don't know how to put their spin on her sorrow. Instead of fixing that lack of focus by showing more of the high points, they double-down on searching for a moral in the low periods for so long, the audience is sent into an overwrought coma. Every time Hudson sings, you are awakened and smile for a little bit before realizing this isn't an Aretha concert tribute event, but a real movie. A disappointing one.

Hudson, who could sing the names of streets in my neighborhood and make it beautiful, does a good job in the big role. She channels Ms. Franklin easily on stage during her singing moments, hitting those high notes better than most current full-time musicians. But she fails to find her way to the heart of what Aretha tick. She doesn't take us to the heart of the matter. It's an impressive yet less-than-great performance. Like the filmmakers, she is searching for Franklin's pulse for the entire running time, often looking aloof in non-singing scenes.

Think of what the power and ferocity she brought to her Oscar-winning role in Bill Condon's "Dreamgirls," how it was much more than just impersonation and song efficiency. Hudson became Effie White. Some actors struggle with creating their own version of a real person.

But there are some woeful performances in this movie. I couldn't tell if Marlon Wayans was doing a comedy skit with his work as Ted White. That's how bad it was. Forest Whitaker tries out at least three different speaking patterns as C.L. Franklin, and none of them turn into a compelling performance.

Audra McDonald, Mary J. Blige, and Tituss Burgess illuminate the screen, but they aren't around long enough. Marc Maron makes for a great Jerry Wexler, sinking his teeth into the role and making you want a biopic of his own. But even his effect on the movie isn't strong enough to overcome its other issues.

The movie only comes truly alive in the Muscle Shoals sequences, the ones in the studio where Franklin's career took off. A scene where Hudson is leading the room of musicians around her lyrics and soulful meaning behind the track is brilliant. But that only accounts for about ten minutes out of the 145 minutes. And I don't mind a longer film due to a big story, but make better use of the time. "Respect" had our attention, but clearly missed a good editor.

If you're going to do an Aretha Franklin movie, do it right. Give it something extra instead of the paint-by-numbers brush stroke Tommy and Wilson apply with "Respect." If I were you, just watch some of the singer's highlights and read up on her civil rights movement work: things that were clearly skimmed or missed here.