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