To win Best Actor for a musical biopic you don’t need a tip-top voice. Marion Cotillard lip-synched through most of La Vie En Rose. Rami Malek did the same in Bohemian Rhapsody. Renee Zellweger sang for real, in Judy, but only needed to convince as a late-era (ie slightly past it) Garland. Surely the dream scenario, however, is great acting plus live singing worthy of a legend in their prime? Which is why Jennifer Hudson deserves an Oscar nomination, at the very least, for her turn as Aretha Franklin in this vivid, if flawed, drama from first-timer Liesl Tommy.
We first meet the Detroit singer in 1952, aged nine (as played by Skye Dakota Turner). The story ends with Franklin recording the live gospel album Amazing Grace in 1972.
In between we get a tragic death, sexual abuse, two mysterious teen pregnancies, sibling rivalry, an overbearing dad, a violent husband, patronising producers, political activism and a literal fall from grace (pissed as a newt, Aretha tumbles off stage). Pacing’s often an issue, while facts and figures have been fudged. Basically, if you’re looking for a snappy and/or subtle and totally authentic package, Respect is not for you.
The spectacular circular shot that introduces us to Hudson encapsulates what the film gets right. The 39-year-old actress, (somehow totally plausible as a teenage Aretha), spills over with sexual energy, insecurity and determination.
Just as the documentary Amy made clear that Winehouse was a songwriter as much as a singer, Respect puts a spotlight on Aretha’s talent for (re)arranging songs and making them her own.
Our heroine collaborates with the team at Muscle Shoals, on I’ll Never Love a Man (The Way That I Love You). Later, she sings Ain’t No Way, with the woman who wrote that song, her cruelly over-shadowed sister, Carolyn (Hailey Kilgore). These sequences are so heady I kept forgetting to breathe. The staging of a concert rendition of Think (clever sound design hushes the rest of the world as an emotionally bruised Aretha, just for a second, wobbles over the word “freedom”) is another masterstroke.
Hudson doesn’t copy Franklin’s vocal technique. What she nails is Franklin’s spirit.
This may not be a definitive account of Franklin’s life, but Hudson gives a definitive performance. Cynthia Erivo was intense in the US TV series, Genius: Aretha. She wasn’t THIS intense.
Franklin had a voice that could flood rooms. Hudson, too, leaves us soaked to the skin.
In cinemas from today. 145mins, 12A