Aretha Franklin is recognized by multiple generations as the “Queen of Soul.”
Now there’s a biopic that immortalizes her title.
The newly released film “Respect” follows in the cinematic footsteps of other recent biopics that have been shining the spotlight on legendary Hollywood figures, including “Ray” (Ray Charles), “Rocket Man” (Elton John), and “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Queen’s Freddie Mercury).
Moving from the young musical prodigy who grew up in Detroit to the seasoned soul singer who returns to her religious roots, the film beautifully conveys Aretha’s life and artistry.
Director Liesl Tommy explains that the film begins “with the church and ends with the church.”
The opening scene features a venue in Detroit in which Aretha first performs as a choir member. It is the same Baptist church where her father, C.L. Franklin, is recognized in his own right as a renowned pastor.
Much like his church, the doors of Pastor Franklin’s home are open. He is host to singers that include the legendary figures Dinah Washington and Sam Cooke. Young Aretha simply knows them as Aunt Dinah and Uncle Sam.
The African-American church where Aretha’s voice first takes to the heavens holds a unique place in American religious history. It is a holy place that provided sanctuary to an oppressed people as they went from slavery to freedom, and then from segregation to civil rights.
The gathering of a faith-filled people, who sought to express love to their Creator and to one another, produced a new genre of music, the joyous gospel style that ultimately made its way around the globe.
The gospel tradition also generated an amazing number of soul stars, who began their singing careers praising God in African-American churches. The church celebrity roster included Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, Dennis Edwards, Lou Rawls, Diana Ross, Curtis Mayfield, Donna Summer, Little Richard, John Legend, Usher, Otis Redding (who actually penned the title song “Respect”), and the Academy Award winning actress and Grammy winning singer (who was hand-picked by Aretha to portray her) Jennifer Hudson.
In the final years of her life, Aretha was a mentor to a young Hudson. Providentially, the two shared the same debut performance venue, both having begun their musical experiences in the church.
“Our biggest base and foundation as a people has been the church,” Hudson tells Refinery29.
“It’s every bit of my life,” she says. “It’s every bit of what has brought me through everything that I’ve been through. … It was so amazing to start in the church and end in the church.”
“It shows that that’s where the power lies, within those roots,” Hudson explains.
With respect to Aretha, Hudson notes, “It wasn’t until she trusted the gift that God instilled in her that we found our Queen of Soul. And it wasn’t until when she went back to her roots, that she gained her greatest success. It lies within us, you know?”
“Respect” was released theatrically this past weekend.
The studio had originally planned a three-phase release for the biopic, with a limited number of screens for Christmas of 2020 to be followed by an increase in screens on January 8, 2021, and a wide release a week later.
Like so many other Hollywood projects, plans for the debut had to be changed due to the pandemic. The film was re-scheduled to a single release date of January 15, 2021, but was delayed once again to August of 2021.
Some themes and complexities of Aretha’s life are explored in the film, including her support of the civil rights movement and of her family friend, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the difficulties experienced with her first two managers, i.e., her father (played by Forest Whitaker) and her first husband Ted White (played by Marlon Wayans).
Wayans understands how Aretha was able to overcome her problems.
“God gets you through,” Wayans tells The Christian Post. “There is nothing that you can go through that you cannot get through. If you have God on your heart and you’re in His hands, just know that He’s protecting you.”
Hudson remembers that Aretha influenced others to pray and to continue “holding on to their faith and trusting God through it all.”
Like her mentor, Hudson now encourages those around her to turn to prayer.
“As they say, if He’ll bring you to it, He’ll bring you through it because that’s what I do. So I would always encourage others to do the same for sure,” she says.
The film shows a redemptive turning point for Aretha, when she shocks her record label by deciding to record a live gospel album.
Aretha’s decision invokes a scene in the film that has her mother, Barbara Siggers Franklin, telling her daughter, “Your daddy doesn’t own your voice, God does.”
Hudson acknowledges that both she and Aretha do not have ownership of their talents.
“I learned at a very early age, growing up singing in church, that it’s beyond you, and who you are. I feel as though as long as I hold on to that, it keeps you grounded in a way,” she explains.
Hudson, like her mentor now from above, sees her singing ability as coming, not from herself, but from “a higher power.”