In another rare sojourn into normalcy, my wife, our daughter, and I went to the nearby Madison Theatre to see the new biopic Aretha. Where else would one want to wait out the remnants of Tropic Storm Henri, which wasn’t as bad here as we feared?
Respect is a serviceable film. That’s damned with faint praise, I suppose. We thought Jennifer Hudson was excellent as the Queen of Soul. At times, I forgot it wasn’t Aretha herself on the screen. The creation of the title song I found particularly moving.
Quite probably, part of my difficulty sorting things out stems from having seen Genius: Aretha, a National Geographic eight-part miniseries back in March and April. Cynthia Erivo was equally good as the title character.
Genius: Aretha was long and occasionally unfocused, bouncing around chronologically. This NPR review notes that it “too often unfolds like a predictable biopic burdened by ham-handed storytelling.”
But it put to good use the young Re, played by Shaian Jordan, with a very fine voice, at all of those revival tours her father C.L. put her in. There was little for young Skye Dakota Turner to do in Respect.
Genius’ C.L. (Courtney B. Vance) was oilier than respect’s C.L. (Forest Whitaker); that’s a compliment to Vance and/or how he was written. My wife wondered how the young Aretha got pregnant a second time in Respect, which is more explicit in Genius.
Both portrayers of Aretha’s abusive first husband Malcolm Barrett (Genius) and Marlon Wayans (Respect) were solidly villainous. It’s clear in both iterations that Aretha left her controlling and occasionally abusive father for her likewise disposed spouse.
Each story touched on her ultimately frustrating time with Columbia. And her first session for Atlantic at Muscle Shoals is told. It would be namedropping if it weren’t the case that the Franklin family really DID know all these folks who appear in one or both films: Sam Cooke, Clara Ward, Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington, King Curtis, Smokey Robinson, Rev. James Cleveland (of course), and in particular, uncle Martin, that is to say, MLK, Jr.
I think the real flaw in Respect is that Aretha’s mother Barbara (the great Audra McDonald) did not get the screentime required for the payoff of her last appearance. The Barbara in Genius is present enough that the feeling of loss is stronger.
The last major scene in Respect, a part also in Genius, is her Amazing Grace performance in Los Angeles. You’d be better served by seeing that documentary, or at least segments of it.
At least, Respect had the sense to end on that triumph. The storyline of Genius after that point wasn’t nearly as compelling. My bottom line is that they each had their strengths. Genius with the young Re. Respect with its shorter running time, although at two and a half hours (!) it was not compact.
The week after we saw Respect, my daughter and I were watching the 2004 biopic Ray, with Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles. Though I recorded it over a year ago, I had never seen it. Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records was a character in all of them, working with Ray in the 1950s before his time with Aretha in the late 1960s. The remembering his mama in Ray worked better than a similar scene in Respect.
If you don’t know the stories, see one or the other, but probably not both.