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Mario Bautista, has been with the entertainment industry for more than 4 decades. He writes regular columns for People's Journal and Malaya.

Oct 3, 2021



ARETHA FRANKLIN is a singer-songwriter-pianist known as the Queen of Soul. In March 2021, a mini-series about her was shown starring Cynthia Erivo as Aretha (nominated for Emmy best actress).

 Now, a full length film is released, “Respect” (the title of one her best hits), with “American Idol” discovery Jennifer Hudson as Aretha. 

We didn’t see the mini-series so we’d only review the film version. It starts in the early 50s with the 10-year old Aretha and her siblings living in Detroit with her famous pastor dad, C.L. Franklin (Forrest Whitaker.) 

Her dad makes her sing to their friends and she sings a bluesy be-bop song that delights everyone.

We learn later that her mom was a victim of their dad’s domestic abuse, so she left their family but she visits them frequently. 

Aretha got her singing and piano playing from her mom (Audra Mcdonald), who soon dies and, in grief, Aretha refuses to talk, so her dad makes her sing gospel songs in their church. 

Aretha got pregnant at the age of 12. In the film, she was shown being seduced in her own bedroom by an unnamed guest of their family. 

The film then jumps to 1959 and Aretha by then already has two sons. She joins her dad as he travels preaching in various states. 

In a party, Ted White (Marlon Wayans) approaches her and invites her to a date, but her dad intervenes and drives Ted away. 

He then gives Aretha a ticket to New York for a meeting with Columbia Records who signs her up. But even after some albums later, she has yet to come up with a hit song. 

She then meets Ted White again and eventually marries him even if everyone is against him. 

She also makes him her manager and Ted transfers her to Atlantic Records. This is where she makes her first big hit, “I Never Loved a Man”. 

Aretha also comes up with her own arrangement of “Respect” by Otis Redding and turns it into a hit single. Another big hit is “A Natural Woman”. 

Meantime, her relationship with Ted deteriorates as he keeps on meddling with her career. 

When her being a battered wife gets published, he wants her to recant it, but she becomes more defiant and fights him for the first time, ending their marriage.

Soon after that, she hooks up with her tour manager, Ken Cunningham (Albert Jones.) She has a child each with Ted and Ken. 

She gets to be overworked, over-booking her shows, and because of all the stress, she turns to alcohol, refusing to listen to anyone who gives her advice until she performs while drunk and falls off the stage. 

She is remorseful and decides to become spiritual by doing a gospel album. She sings “Amazing Grace” and this becomes the highest-selling album in her entire career, selling over 2 million records and becoming double platinum. 

After this, a footage of the real life Aretha is shown, as the end credits roll, singing “A Natural Woman” in a concert at the Kennedy Center, attended by then Pres. Barrack Obama and his wife Michelle, three years before she passed.

She died on August 16, 2018 at the age of 76. By that time, she has won a total of 18 Grammy Awards and her records have sold a total of 75 million worldwide. 

She really made a big impact and in 2019, she was given a posthumous Pultizer Prize “for her indelible contribution to American music and culture for more than five decades”.

As a biopic on a real life singer or musician, “Respect” follows the same formula used by similar films like the ones on Ray Charles, Judy Garland, Billie Holliday and Hank Williams, where the artist faces personal trials and tribulations that can be racial, personal or gender related. 

Here, Aretha’s story is given a female empowerment theme with her finally discarding her very controlling father and husband-manager and insisting to take her career in her own hands.

The real life Aretha is very political as she actively fights for the rights of black people and indigenous Native Americans and, as such, is an immense iconic cultural figure. 

But her activism here is shown only in her friendship with civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King (Gilbert Glenn Brown), who adores her and even gives her an award declaring February 16 as Aretha Franklin Day in Detroit. 

The murder of Dr. King in April, 1968, was a big blow to Aretha. The film runs for two hours and 20 minutes but you get the feeling that as a viewer, you don’t get to be truly emotionally connected with the lead character. 

Debuting director Liesl Tommy does not really get to mine the grit and passion of its subject to make the film a full-blooded, solidly affecting character portrait.

Dreamgirl Jennifer Hudson tries her best to redeem what the film lacks, specially in her scenes as a troubled global superstar, but the script itself fails to register what is the inner power or will that fuels her from within. 

Nothing like what Sissy Spacek did in portraying country music queen Loretta Lynn in the endearing “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (for which she won an Oscar) or what Liza Minelli did in playing a fictional singer in “Cabaret (for which she also won an Oscar.)

Forest Whitaker gives excellent support and a more nuanced performance as her domineering preacher dad with his firebrand homilies where he combines faith and civil rights. Marlon Wayans also has his moments as the abusive and annoying husband.