Personally approved by Franklin, Jennifer Hudson captures the queen of soul’s star power, but this biopic is too well behaved to do its extraordinary subject justice
Hosting the 78th Academy Awards in 2006, Jon Stewart quipped that the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line was simply “Ray with white people”. The gag landed not so much because of its racial politics (the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was still a decade away) but because it skewered a film-cliche truth – that no matter how different their individual stories may seem, the key beats of most rock and pop biopics are strikingly similar. Indeed, the two primary challenges for any movie in this genre are: to cast actors who can embody their subjects’ star power on screen, and to find ways to make old movie tropes seem new. In this regard, Respect – a biopic of queen of soul Aretha Franklin, with a barnstorming central turn from Jennifer Hudson – hits one of its two targets.
Tracing an arc from Franklin’s church-house childhood in 1950s Detroit, through the personal turmoils and civil rights struggles that came to a head in the 60s (she was a friend and supporter of Dr King and sang at his memorial service), to the triumphant recording of a bestselling gospel album in the early 70s, Respect treads a well-worn and somewhat sanitised path.