The musician biopic is such a distinctive and strange genre of American film, one so formulaic that it by-and-large may as well be the one film. It simply shifts race, class, and gender from one release to the next. Each film opens with a protagonist’s difficult childhood, before extending to their early success as a musician or singer, a descent into alcohol or drugs, and finally a transcendent experience via a famous recording, concert, or song.
This is a model that has proven to be remarkably successful over the years, whether biographing Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (2005), Jerry Lee Lewis in Great Balls of Fire (1989), Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea, or Ray Charles in Ray (both 2004). Indeed, so prevalent is the formula it has even been applied to real-life figures whose lives did not even match it (your periodic reminder that Bohemian Rhapsody is a terrible, terrible film, and everyone involved should feel ashamed).
Liesl Tommy’s film Respect delivers the biopic treatment upon popular soul singer Aretha Franklin, tracking her life from childhood through to the 1972 recording of her album Amazing Grace. It hits every beat expected of the musician biopic, from young trauma through the early success and into conflict with family and an abusive relationship.
By the time it reaches the expected period of alcoholism it manages to do a number of things. Firstly it becomes apparent just how little suspense there is to the story. Secondly, without any particularly effective flourishes in direction and script it feels an awful lot like a cheap, throwaway melodrama. Finally, and perhaps critically, it becomes striking how Aretha Franklin was a real person with real problems; without a deeper purpose representing them as popular entertainment feels remarkably tacky.
It is not that it is a bad film – undoubtedly many will watch it or have already, and find it perfectly reasonable entertainment – it is that it is fundamentally ordinary entertainment. Jennifer Hudson gives a remarkable performance as Franklin herself, and is boosted by a great supporting cast including Marlon Wayans (never better), Titus Burgess, Marc Maron, Forrest Whitaker, Audra McDonald, and Mary J. Blige. Clearly the widespread use of Franklin’s songs throughout give it a tremendous lift. It is not, however, a film with anything in particular to say. There is some genuinely confronting material in the opening act, but its creators recoil from dwelling on it. There are some solid scenes of artists creating their music, which is always my favourite aspect of these kinds of movies, but that feels insufficiently embraced as well. Instead it all simply sits there, acceptance but unexceptional. Watchable without ever becoming genuinely enjoyable. When the most emotionally effective scene in your film is a clip of the real-life Aretha Franklin singing “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center honours while the credits roll, your film has an insurmountable problem. A two-and-a-half hours in length, Respect is also easily a solid 30 minutes too long.
Again: this is not a bad film, but certainly it is the film we are left with having not been given a particularly good one.