Entertainment superstar Aretha Franklin was an industry icon and international treasure. Beloved by millions, honored by presidents, and she also struggled with personal and family turmoil.
The Queen of Soul handpicked Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson to play her in a long-awaited MGM biopic. All Franklin was askin’ for was a little respect. Does this movie bring it?
Franklin’s stellar career overflowed with highlights: 18 Grammy awards, concerts galore. She sang at three U.S. presidential inaugurations (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama) and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, a legendary Baptist preacher, was friends with Martin Luther King Jr. Franklin was active in the civil rights movement and sang at King’s funeral.
She was the first female inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the second woman into the U.K. Music Hall of Fame. A child prodigy, she performed piano and sang at her father’s church and revival tours. He connected her with famous singers such as Dinah Washington, Sam Cooke, Clara Ward, and Mahalia Jackson. Her major hits included “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.
Respect, the new biopic, was intensely personal for director Liesl Tommy, a woman of color raised in South Africa’s apartheid system. “Aretha Franklin loved Black people. I love Black people. I wanted to make sure that Black people would feel loved by this film,” she said in production notes for the film. “We’ve seen white men tell us who we are for so long, and this was our opportunity to say who we are. That authenticity is in every frame of this film.”
Childhood stardom and road life brought temptations. Pregnant at ages 12 and 14, Franklin raised both sons with family help. She was 6 when her parents separated, 9 when her mother died. By some accounts, her father was quite promiscuous. National Geographic Channel’s 2021 television series Genius: Aretha portrays him as a hard-drinking, lascivious Lothario. Respect, perhaps through family or estate influence, pictures him more kindly, though not without fidelity flaws.
Franklin’s complicated relationship with her father affected her entire life. Her marriages to manager Ted White and actor Glynn Turman both ended in divorce. Some sources maintain Franklin struggled with alcohol. Many of her songs reflect deep emotion — pain, disappointment, desires for love — perhaps mirroring her own journey.
Franklin’s faith remained a lifelong source of strength. Hudson observes in the production notes, “When you grow up in church singing the way Aretha and I did … you learn to sing with a purpose … to a higher calling such as God.”
In 1972, Franklin recorded a gospel album, Amazing Grace, at a Los Angeles church. Respect features this event significantly. Amazing Grace became her best-selling album.
Attendees at the 1972 church recording sessions included Mick Jagger, who later recalled the event fondly to the Los Angeles Times: “a really electrifying performance … raised the hair on the back of your neck … super-charged … a different Aretha … than I had experienced before.”
Her songs there were captivating. Anchored by the classic hymn “Amazing Grace,” the sessions included her covers of Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” and of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” When she sang “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” she sounded like she knew him.
Hudson and MGM have done a fine job of capturing and portraying Franklin’s deep feelings about her dreams and discouragements, causes and clashes, her love for her audiences, and her trust in God. Respect is well worth seeing.
Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents. His film reviews and columns have been published by newspapers across the country and used by more than 2,000 websites.
This article first appeared on WashingtonExaminer.com