Aretha Franklin was the queen of soul and totally deserved to get her story out there on film. But Respect felt a little shallow and lacking in details. I enjoyed it because of the music. But I don’t feel like I watched a very real story of her life. I wonder why. Let’s see if I can get to the bottom of that. I will be spoiling a little, but hey: if you go to a wiki page, you get the whole story too.
Music is awesome
One of the reasons I love watching biopics of musicians and singers is because I love music. I loved Ray, Walk the Line, What’s Love Got To Do With It, Rocket Man, Bohemian Rhapsody, Judy, Straigh Outta Comptom, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, La Vie En Rose, La Bamba, Amadeus, 8 Mile … I’ll stop. I watched a lot. There is usually a lot of drama in musicians or singers lives. And scenario writers often emphasize the obstacles that had to be overcome. You know it is fiction, but you also get some insight into what events formed people. But it is a tricky balance between truth and fantasy, that always leans more to entertain than to speak truth.
Respect starts out with Aretha’s childhood. She loves singing, she loves her mother and father, and sisters, and she is paraded at parties by her father so she can impress the guests with her singing. And she loves that, she loves to perform. She wants to be seen, I guess. Then there are darker sides of her childhood that are hinted at, such as possible abuse. And the loss of her mother marks a big change. That whole start of the film sets a good tone, though. You get a feeling where Ree comes from.
Respect lacks depth
But because Aretha is such a humble and quiet person, and character, you don’t really get anything more than that in the rest of the film. It is like things happen to her and she is the subject rather than the person in charge. The only time you feel her presence is when she is writing music or recording songs. That’s when she acts like the strong woman you kinda suspected she was. But she disappears in meetings, or when she is with family. Maybe that was the intended way to present her in Respect. It just feels – I don’t know – it was not what I expected.
Comparing her story to other biopics or lives of singers, you see a lot of overlap: due to the times she grew up in, men are overbearing and obnoxious in her life; she has experiences with alcohol abuse; she’s being taken advantage of and encounters racism. If you watch Lady Sings The Blues (Billie Holiday) or What’s Love Got To Do With It? (Tina Turner) you see similar themes. But with a film like the one about Tina Turner, I had a much clearer idea what she was about and how events shaped her life and her actions. Aretha remains a bit of a mystery in Respect. But the music is good. But I don’t feel I understand Aretha any better as a person.
Time-stamped in history
As a historical film, Respect is much more interesting. Aretha and her family were engaged with the civil rights movement, friends with Dr. Martin Luther King and active in the church from a perspective of freedom from the oppressive racism that was still around. Looking at Aretha as a woman who struggled to be free, equal and who expected to be respected is a story that resonates. On top of the civil rights struggle, she also had to deal with the limits that were set on women at that time. How to define herself in an era where she was not supposed to stand out, stand up and be heard can account for the absence, for me, of who she really was. I think that it is interesting that the time she lived in did influence so much of here life. Obviously.
As a film, Respect is nog the best biopic I have seen. But it is consistent and it tells you enough to understand the music and where Aretha found her strength, ultimately. But as a voice of the civil rights movement, a performer such as Nina Simone comes to mind much clearer. As an artists, Tina Turner felt much stronger and more versatile. But I am not from the generation that watched Aretha Franklin rise up. And I do recognise that her songs, dated as they are, were awesome and still are. She had a great voice and knew how to put on a great performance. And she lasted, where others might have fallen. I just wish the film had given me a tiny little gem of the spark she had. Still, I enjoyed watching the film, so it’s definitely worth the time to watch it.