How Much and in What Ways Does ‘Respect’ Respect Aretha Franklin? Let’s Find Out!

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Respect (CREDIT: Quantrell D. Colbert/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures)

Starring: Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Marc Maron, Audra McDonald, Tituss Burgess, Saycon Sengbloh, Hailey Kilgore, Tate Donovan, Mary J. Blige, Gilbert Glenn Brown, Skye Dakota Turner

Director: Liesl Tommy

Running Time: 145 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Abusive Relationships and Racial Tension

Release Date: August 13, 2021 (Theaters)

Aretha Franklin biopic Respect keeps harping on the idea that the Queen of Soul didn’t start having hits until she focused on her own original efforts, and I kind of wish the movie had taken its own advice. Now, it obviously couldn’t be a completely thorough original. It is a biopic, after all. But Jennifer Hudson is talented enough to make me think that this movie isn’t really going to sing until she’s allowed to break free and offer her own unique interpretation. The most rousing moment of the whole film comes during the end credits when we get to see the real Aretha bring the house down at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors with a rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” (President Obama was having a GREAT time.) To be fair, Hudson and the makers of Respect are more interested in exploring the behind-the-scenes of Franklin’s story, but it is telling that they never quite achieve something as triumphant as the real deal.

The challenge of so many music biopics is combining idiosyncrasy with reverence. Those two impulses don’t really mix, and oftentimes biopic makers are much more interested in the latter than the former anyway. The title of Respect indicates that that’s very much the case here. That’s especially clear in one scene when Aretha attempts to perform a song by family friend Dinah Washington (an intensely regal Mary J. Blige) while Dinah is in attendance. It absolutely does not go so well, thanks to Dinah’s insistence that you don’t play the Queen in front of the Queen. That deference marks the entire movie. Within that boundary, Hudson is able to successfully explore Franklin’s trauma and resilience, but she doesn’t have room to leave her own inimitable signature.

I found the portrayals of the main men in Aretha’s life much more compelling, perhaps because their public personas are much less set in stone and thus the actors don’t have to feel beholden to icons. I’m talking Forest Whitaker as her iron-willed minister father C.L., Marlon Wayans as her controlling and abusive manager-slash-husband Ted White, and Marc Maron as Jerry Wexler, the producer who’s actually committed to letting Aretha be Aretha. Respect gives us a full picture of all the big, often controlling personalities in Aretha’s life, and so it works in painting that picture and in that way it fulfills the promise of its title. If you’re in the mood for that sort of contextualization, you might be satisfied, but don’t expect the house to be brought down the way that Aretha so often did.

Respect is Recommended If You Like: Behind the Music, Deferential covers

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Chains of Fools

‘Cats’ is a Jellicle-Only Affair

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CREDIT: Universal Pictures

Starring: Francesca Hayward, James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Ray Winstone

Director: Tom Hooper

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG for CGI’d Cat-People Lifting Their Legs Up Suggestively

Release Date: December 20, 2019

I admire the people who have made Cats, including all versions of the musical and this here film adaptation. The whole premise is thoroughly ridiculous, and all the little details only make it more so. So anyone who has given it their all at the Jellicle Ball has no time for the shame that such an enterprise might convey. That sort of pluck and resilience will get you far in life. It doesn’t necessarily make for good filmmaking, though. In this case, at least, it just transfers something truly baffling in one iteration into something just as baffling, in the same ways and more, in another medium.

The plot, such as it is, is immensely inconsequential, but it has something to do with new cat in town Victoria (Francesca Hayward) trying to find her place in cat society while devious cat Macavity (Idris Elba) plucks away his competition for the Jellicle Ball, which I’m pretty sure is some sort of talent show. Meanwhile, all the other cats prance about and sing their signature songs to let us know who they are. So far, so phantasmagorical. This could be appreciated as a bizarre theatrical extravaganza if the staging and choreography were decent. But director Tom Hooper has a way of shooting every scene that makes it feel like everything is so far away, even the close-ups. It confers an elusive nature that is the opposite of the extreme intimacy of high-frame rate, and thus it is difficult to connect with whatever emotional resonance the actors are able to summon. If something is going to be as unbelievable as this, it ought to also be unforgettable. Alas, Cats is just a piffle that my subconscious doesn’t even want to bother with.

Cats is Recommended If You Like: Thorough nonsense

Grade: 2 out of 5 Jellicles