Director: Liesl Tommy (USA, Canada). Year of Release: 2021
Detroit, 1952. A ten year old girl is taken out of bed and asked to join a family party. There’s Aunt Ella and Uncle Duke. Later she’ll meet Uncles Smokey and Martin (Luther King). And the man asking the girl to perform is the Reverend C.L.Franklin – at the time famous in his own right but now better known by most as the father of Aretha.
Shortly afterwards, at a similar party, a creepy looking man stands at Aretha’s bedroom door. He asks if she has a boyfriend. Of course not, she’s only ten. “I could be your boyfriend”, he says, entering the room and closing the door behind him. This makes you think that this won’t be the usual sanitized biopic and we’ll be confronted by the real abuse that Aretha suffered. But though she does have a child at the age of 13, we don’t learn anything about its conception.
There are generally 2 types of musical biopics. There are those – usually about male artists or groups – which follow the protagonists’ rise to fame before they destroy themselves through drink, drugs and the rock star lifestyle. Then there are the women who have a natural talent, but they are either prevented from realising this talent by manipulative men, or it is beaten out of them.
Respect is, in a sense, both types of film. We see interminable shots of Aretha being intimidated by overbearing men. She is hit, and regularly bullied by her father, her husband and record producers. But also, as she attains fame and success, the abuse that she receives drives her to drink. Rather than blaming her abusers, she – and those around her – attribute her drinking, and basic cussedness, to her “demons”.
The effect is one of infantilising Aretha – of making her incapable of changing what Is happening to her. The opening scenes of the 10 year old girl who is cajoled by her father to sing at his parties and church services, who is traumatised every time her mother visits and has to leave, who is raped off screen, show the Aretha who is depicted throughout the film – a victim, but someone who is offered no alternative to victimhood.
There is one exception to this. The film’s depiction of politics is always slightly ambiguous. Reverend Franklin preaches Civil Rights – as befits a friend of Dr. King. Yet the main message of his service is that we can endure injustice because God will protect us (a strategy that didn’t do too well for King). He manages to simultaneously preach defiance and acceptance of how things are.
In an early scene, the Reverend and his daughter are in Alabama supporting the struggle. Aretha is singing in benefit concerts. But at the whiff of agitation, her father takes her back to Detroit. Later on, when she has arranged to go South to play a solidarity concert for SNCC, he informs her that this is impossible as he’s booked a studio for her in New York.
Until we come to the exception. King is shot dead in Memphis. Aretha gets more militant, growing an Afro and speaking out in support of the wrongly imprisoned Angela Davis. There is a staged scene in a restaurant where the Reverend Franklin preaches non-violence and Aretha tells him that this strategy no longer works. Finally, she is speaking up for herself.
In the very next scene, friends and family members make an intervention. Not about Aretha’s increased politicisation – this is never mentioned again. Instead this is the point where the film chooses to announce that, largely as a result of her heavy drinking, Aretha has started to take crazy decisions. Consciously or not, the intimation is that there is a connection between Aretha speaking up for herself and other people, and her (self-)destruction.
And then the film ends, shortly afterwards, at the 1972 “Amazing Grace” concert the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, subject of a documentary which was made at the time but released only recently. Suddenly Aretha finds God and conquers all her demons. The remaining 46 years of her life appear in a few end credits. It’s a point of view, albeit one which doesn’t correspond with reality. For the rest of her life, she continued to arbitrarily cancel concerts.
This is a well-acted film which could work very well as a Sunday afternoon tv movie. It raises small controversies before papering over their consequences. It has an admirable selection of Good Guys and Bad Guys. And it has ridiculous lines there only to help the exposition like “that’s me, Dinah Washington”. And at 2 ½ hours, it is WAY too long.
And yet, no film with a soundtrack like this could be bad. The concert footage is great and the songs are as memorable as ever. This is not enough to save the film, but it is one small reason to give it a go.