Biopic about Aretha Franklin: Music was her salvation – culture

The singer can be seen in half profile, behind her the silhouettes of the musicians. The song is about a “No Good Heartbreaker”, a man she can’t leave even though he treats her badly. Because she loves him. She hisses and screams, then the horns kick in and she gently whispers the refrain: “I ain’t never loved a man the way I love you.” A milestone in pop history. And a marriage drama.

With the album “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You”, Aretha Franklin made her commercial breakthrough in 1967. It was the first album that she released on the Atlantic label, and her first that she recorded in the southern states. At least partially. The scenes in which the soul singer recorded the title track in the legendary Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals, a small town in Alabama, are among the highlights of the biopic “Respect”.

Jennifer Hudson plays Aretha Franklin with breathtaking precision. Her voice sounds just as angry and rough as the model, she throws herself into this song with all verve. Nobody had told Franklin that all the backing musicians were white. She’s about to leave, then the band starts playing, pretty funky, and Franklin starts singing. Until her husband Ted White (Marlon Wayans) shows up and starts a violent argument with studio boss Rick Hall (Myk Watford). Ted is her manager too, he doesn’t want to give up control of her. A case of toxic masculinity, as described in the song. The recordings are canceled and only resumed six months later in New York.

Aretha Franklin, who died three years ago at the age of 76, has seen many crashes and new starts. “Respect”, staged by the South African director Liesl Tommy, tells the story of an emancipation fought against many opposition. The film begins in Detroit in 1952. Aretha is nine and is woken up by her father in the middle of the night: “We want to hear you sing!”

Forest Whitaker plays the patriarch with a mixture of harshness and warmth. Aretha walks into the living room in her nightgown, past drinking and smoking party guests, sets up in front of the piano and sings a boogie-woogie piece. The guests cheer.

It is the primal scene of this career: a musical child prodigy who is driven to top performance by his ambitious father. The Baptist minister has worked hard for the family’s prosperity and requires iron discipline from his children. When the mother, an often absent, tirelessly touring gospel singer (Audra McDonald), dies, Aretha stops speaking. It is her form of mourning and at the same time an act of rebellion against her father who wants to force her to give a gospel performance in church. Her piano teacher comforts her: “The music will save you.”


There are more such pathetic messages, and it is really true: the music not only saves Aretha, but also the film. Liesl Tommy has staged dramas and musicals on New York Broadway, “Respect” is her first work for the cinema. Sometimes the plot gets lost in the anecdotal, sometimes it seems very striking how life stations and contemporary history are ticked off. For example, when the singer meets Martin Luther King (Gilbert Glenn Brown) and announces to him that she wants to march in the demonstrations he led. He just asks: “Do you want to run away from your father?”

[In 15 Berliner Kinos; OV im Cinemaxx Potsdamer Platz, Cineplex Neukölln, Delphi Lux, Rollberg und Zoo Palast]

“Respect” focuses on the first three decades of Franklin’s biography, up to the triumphant comeback concert at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, where “Amazing Grace” was created in 1972, the best-selling gospel album of all time. One cannot speak of a sheltered childhood. Aretha is twelve when a man sneaks into her nursery at a party and says, “Let’s have fun together.” A rape ensues. She becomes pregnant and has the first of her four sons. The trauma accompanies the singer for a lifetime. She struggles with alcohol problems and is caught up with depression.

“Child, you can sing anything,” said the jazz singer Dinah Washington, admired by Franklin, in one scene and asks: “But what do you want to sing?” The answer: “Hits.” However, the Columbia record company, with whom her father has a contract, knows negotiates not to do anything with Franklin. She sings standards to orchestral accompaniment, the records flop. It was only when the Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron) granted her artistic freedom that hits were created that reflected the African American fight for equality: “People Get Ready”, “Think”, “Respect”.

Jennifer Hudson, who received an Oscar for her part in the sixties soul musical “Dreamgirls”, was chosen by Aretha Franklin for the lead role in “Respect”. How Hudson sings almost twenty songs by the soul diva, how exactly she meets their intonation, timbre and expression without imitating them, is great. The film always finds the right images for the brilliant soundtrack. The genesis of the title piece becomes an example of self-empowerment. “Respect” is from Otis Redding, his version was about a man who brags about owning everything women want.

Aretha Franklin turned the lament into a feminist hymn by adding a backing choir with nasty taunts. In the film, she sings “Respect” for the first time in the kitchen, using a wooden spoon as a microphone. During the studio recording in New York, the camera turns once around the singer, and suddenly Franklin is on the stage in sold out Madison Square Garden. At that moment she becomes the Queen, the Queen of Soul.