Time Out says
Jennifer Hudson goes all in in a performance that is no mere mimicry – even if the film around her is less impressive
History hangs heavy on the mighty shoulders of Aretha ‘Re’ Franklin. Crowned the Queen of Soul, her voice is one of the greatest the world has ever known. Her music has been held up as a powerful rallying call for the civil rights and feminist movements. She sang at the inauguration of President Barack Obama, when the curve of American history seemed more hopeful, and at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr, when it did not.
And so stepping into her shoes for Respect – the latest in a long line of meaty music biopics rolled out these last few years – could be seen as a somewhat thankless task. Especially when the great singer herself shows up in archival footage playing out over the end credits (her tribute to Carole King). But Jennifer Hudson has a better claim at taking a shot than most. She has form, after all, winning an Oscar for her Dreamgirls Supremes-like singer. More importantly, she was one of the chosen few to perform at Franklin’s funeral in 2018.
Hudson sure steps up to the challenge, dazzling with the song that lends its name to the film’s title – particularly in a low-key scene where she feels out its evolving emotional beats alongside her sisters Erma (Saycon Sengbloh) and Carolyn (Hailey Kilgore). Respect culminates in Franklin’s determination to go back to basics, recording her celebrated gospel album Amazing Grace (the subject of a recent concert doc in its own right).
In truth, the best musical moment probably belongs to child actor Skye Dakota Turner as a young Franklin, impressing at a party that also features a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by the inimitable Mary J Blige as 1950s star Dinah Washington.
Not unlike Andra Day’s show-stopping turn in Lee Daniel’s underwhelming The United States vs. Billie Holiday, it’s really all about Hudson’s central performance here. Others are not so impressive, with Forest Whitaker managing to be both wooden and cartoonish as her overbearing father Reverend CL Franklin.
Aside from Hudson’s central turn, the film – written by Tracey Scott Wilson and directed by Liesl Tommy – is a fairly generic clip show replete with album cover montages. Franklin was on board as a producer before her passing, and while Respect never quite succumbs to saccharine hagiography, there are very few moments that feel anything less than officially sanctioned.
It’s at its weakest when blithely skipping over Franklin’s demons, including the long shadow of childhood abuse and the rote depiction of alcoholic addiction. When it resorts to a ghostly appearance, it’s a real eye-roll moment. Respect is entertaining enough, but both Hudson and Franklin deserve just a little a bit better than that.
In US theaters now and UK cinemas Sep 10.
Cast and crew
Mary J Blige