Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB
Canada/USA, 2021. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Bron Studios, Creative Wealth Media Finance, Glickmania. Story by Callie Khouri, Tracey Scott Wilson, Screenplay by Tracey Scott Wilson. Cinematography by Kramer Morgenthau. Produced by Scott Bernstein, Jonathan Glickman, Harvey Mason Jr., Stacey Sher. Music by Kris Bowers. Production Design by Ina Mayhew. Costume Design by Clint Ramos. Film Editing by Avril Beukes.
For anyone who became familiar with Aretha Franklin later in her career and accepted her legendary talent and eternal legacy as a foregone conclusion, a biopic about her is a welcome addition to the long list of films dedicated to the great lives of famous musicians: it’s important to remember that she didn’t just spring into her Hall of Fame popularity fully formed, and that behind her great achievements was a great deal of struggle and pain. A talent as unique as Aretha’s, particularly her voice that could shake the rafters from when she was just a little girl singing in her father’s church, deserves a unique film to really show us the difficult journey she made from traumatized young woman to confident, self-guided adult. Success in her business seems to have been more or less a given, she had a well-connected father and record executives didn’t need much convincing to give her voice a listen, but taking control of that success was something else. Unfortunately, this effort, working from a numb script and very basic direction and following the Coal Miner’s Daughter formula like instructions in a cookbook, does not accomplish the telling of this story in any effective way.
We begin with moments from young Aretha’s life, her painful separation from her caring mother Barbara (Audra McDonald) and her constant desire to please her exacting, high-ranking Baptist preacher father C.L. (Forest Whitaker), her performances in church that made her talent known very early, and, most devastating, her becoming pregnant at the age of 12 after being raped by a family friend during one of her father’s many legendary parties (she had two children by 15). As a teenager, her accompanying C.L.’s sermons around the country lands Aretha a record contract at Columbia Records, but her father as manager keeps tight control over her song and image choices and she never manages to deliver a hit, constantly doing polite covers of standards and never quite tapping into the heart-wringing soul behind that giant voice of hers.
When she falls in love with Ted White (Marlon Wayans), the good and the bad come Aretha’s way, her marriage helps her break away from her father’s control but also makes her vulnerable to Ted’s violent rages (for some reason, even though Aretha married Ted when she was 18, the film suggests it happened after she was 20). Aretha is constantly being plagued by what she and her family call her “demons”, periods in which she is overcome with her own raging outbursts, and as she becomes more successful these very dark days see her upping her alcohol intake and behaving nastily to her backup singing sisters and music colleagues. What she’s actually doing is having difficulty processing the traumas of her life, from being abused at a young age to the loss of her mother, who was always a direct contrast to her father’s exploitation of her, and these are compounded by the exhausting struggles of trying to keep a successful career going at its best and most productive level. Eventually, after having the usual third act fall-out (missing shows, yelling about wanting another drink, we saw Loretta Lynn and Ray Charles do it so we only need it in montage) Aretha must make a decision about where to go next, to honour not just her talent but her own heart and mind and create work that will give to her life rather than take away from her well being.
Jennifer Hudson was personally approved by Franklin for the role and it was, of course, the only choice possible, she has the vocal power to perform the musical numbers and to no one’s surprise she does them brilliantly, but there’s something forced and canned about her performance in the dialogue scenes that never quite clicks in, either she’s too busy trying to imitate a woman she knew very well before her death in 2018, or first-time feature director Liesl Tommy’s amateurish direction isn’t getting the right energy out of her. Trying to play the shy and reserved Aretha in the first half is never convincing, it feels like we’re watching filmed rehearsals, while the second half, where she unleashes her uncontrollable rages, is never given enough weight thanks to a script that’s plagued with stilted, on-the-nose dialogue and scenarios (Mary J. Blige in a cameo as Dinah Washington doesn’t just flip the table metaphorically, she actually flips the table).
The focus here is that the great singer looking to achieve, as the title suggests, respect, not just as her signature song but as something she feels for herself and can therefore command from others, a very internal but very powerful journey that this film can’t seem to take us on. Most disappointing is the lack of joy: for all her woes, Aretha gave off a great energy when she sang that brought people easily to their feet, it’s still there when you listen to her records, and neither Hudson’s performance nor the script by celebrated author Tracey Scott Wilson manage to capture it; it’s almost a mistake that the actual performance Franklin gave at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015 for honoree Carole King is included over the end credits, as it accurately charts the gap between who she was and how she’s being represented, but it at least provides a good feeling with which to end this otherwise disastrous misfire.
Golden Globe Award Nomination: Best Original Song (“Here I Am (Singing My Way Home))”
Screen Actors Guild Award Nomination: Best Actress (Jennifer Hudson)