AND… SCENE! A Soulless Tribute to the Queen of Soul

AND...SCENE!
Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige as Dinah Washington in RESPECT | Photo: Quantrell D. Colbert
By
Juan A. Ramirez
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on
August 18, 2021 12:46 PM
Category:
Features

And...Scene! is Juan A. Ramirez's weekly column with hot takes, musings, and all that jazz.

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Following my recent streak of watching biopics about Black superstars, the stage was set for me to love Respect. Actually, with the recent Funny Girl casting news and my subsequent immediate rewatch, it’s been a lovely streak of watching superstars play superstars: Barbra as Fanny Brice, Angela Bassett’s Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It?, Diana Ross’ incredible Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues.

Along comes Jennifer Hudson, handpicked by the late Aretha Franklin herself to step into her shoes on screen. Hudson is probably the only person who could pull this off––and she does––but it’s a shame it had to be wasted in a joyless, pointless, and entirely soulless recounting of the Queen of Soul’s early life and career.

Respect is ostensibly the story of a woman coming into her own, shedding the toxic men in her life, and finding her voice on the world stage––all predictable biopic beats that can nevertheless be satisfying if focused tightly enough on its lead performance. This is the film’s darkest sin: it does everything it can to make Franklin the least interesting character in nearly every scene she’s in.

Even the music numbers, though sung beautifully by Hudson, obscure the actual performance. If you book Jennifer Hudson in your music film, you simply let her do her thing; fix the camera on her and let her roar. Only the first number, “There is a fountain filled with blood,” and the climactic “Amazing Grace” grant her center stage. The rest are an embarrassing blend of montages or overproduced greenscreen performances which telegraph excitement without actually encouraging it.

One thing the film does right by Franklin is highlighting her innate musical prowess. More than a singer, she had a knack for perfecting each song, and this shines through in scenes that focus on her jamming with her band, or her sisters. “I Never Loved a Man” and an early cut of “Respect” accomplish beautifully, demonstrating the superior film that could have rested easily on Franklin working out her material, à la Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

You look at this cast list––an embarrassment of Black theatrical excellence which includes Hudson, Audra McDonald, Tituss Burgess, Saycon Sengbloh, Hailey Kilgore, Heather Headley as well as powerhouses Mary J. Blige, Forest Whitaker, and Marlon Wayans––and wonder how it could have all gone so wrong. How a 145-minute movie can dip into so many aspects of a person’s life without telling you a single thing about them.

Movie musicals and music biopics are seldom perfect, but they should at least provide a memorable central performance or numbers you can rewatch detached from the main narrative. The second act of Funny Girl is infamously a slog; What’s Love Got to Do with It? contains scenes of domestic abuse I am not rushing to rewatch; and Lady Sings the Blues is a drawn-out downfall that doesn’t inspire multiple rewatches on days spent sick in bed. But those are all excellent movies that linger in the imagination, if only because of their understanding that their leading ladies are the star, and all have scenes that are bound to change you as a moviegoer.

Respect, unfortunately, commands none of it.

Follow Juan A. at @itsNumberJuan

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Juan A. Ramirez

Juan A. Ramirez writes arts and culture reviews, features, and interviews for publications in New York and Boston, and will continue to do so until every last person is annoyed. Thanks to his MA in Film and Media Studies from Columbia University, he has suddenly found himself the expert on Queer Melodrama in Venezuelan Cinema, and is figuring out ways to apply that.