clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The new Aretha Franklin movie shows how tricky it is to make a great musician biopic

Respect understands the genre’s problems, but falls into them anyway.

A woman sings into a microphone.
Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in Respect.
Quantrell D. Colbert/MGM
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

If there were any justice in the world, the formulaic musician biopic should have undergone a seismic shift in 2007, with the theatrical debut of one of the century’s greatest satirical masterpieces: Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.

John C. Reilly stars in the film, which masquerades as the impressively twisty life story of fictional rocker Dewford Randolph Cox; in telling Cox’s tale, Walk Hard affectionately parodies the whole musician biopic genre, from Walk the Line to Bohemian Rhapsody to Ray and plenty more. There’s the traumatic childhood, usually with stern and unsupportive parents. There’s the struggle for recognition and the first big break, often simultaneously with a first love or sexual awakening. There’s the scene where the germ of the big hit finally starts coming together.

Then, inevitably, there’s a montage where the character’s success grows as their personal life falls apart. Usually, there are drugs. Finally, someone intervenes — a manager, or a friend — and convinces the singer to get help. At some point they recover and begin recording or performing again and, with any luck, play a comeback show that symbolizes their redemption.

Every beat appears, in gleeful parody, in Walk Hard, and seeing that film makes it hard not to chuckle when the same arc crops up in any subsequent, straight-faced movie. The film even begins, like so many others, with Cox about to walk onto the stage for his comeback show; then he pauses for a moment, and someone remarks, “Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays.” (I snorted my soda when the definitely-not-a-parody Bohemian Rhapsody started so similarly that it seemed like it had to be a self-aware joke.)

Mind you, not every movie about a musician’s life takes this same linear tack. Among my favorites are the 2014 Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy, which crosses back and forth between two timelines, and the absolutely wild 2007 film I’m Not There, in which no fewer than six different actors (including Cate Blanchett) portray Bob Dylan. Even the 2019 Elton John movie Rocketman, while it mostly walks a more formulaic path, manages to lean away from certain stereotypes by becoming, in essence, a jukebox musical about the musician, one with plentiful flights of fancy.

A woman and a child sing at a piano.
Skye Turner and Audra McDonald as young Aretha Franklin and her mother Barbara Siggers Franklin in Respect.
Quantrell D. Colbert / MGM

Yet the conventional arc continues to pop up often enough that I can’t help but wonder why so many filmmakers keep using it. It happens again in Respect, a new film about Aretha Franklin, which hews closely to familiar well-trodden beats. Directed by Liesl Tommy and written by Tracey Scott Wilson, it’s a straightforward look at the Queen of Soul’s life. Respect starts in her troubled youth (including sexual assault that ended in two pregnancies by age 14), moves through her alternating years of struggle and stardom, and ends with the 1972 recording of Amazing Grace, which became her bestselling album.

There are plenty of elements to praise in Respect, chief among them Jennifer Hudson’s stellar performance as Franklin (the late singer selected Hudson to play her) and Forrest Whitaker’s as her father, preacher C.L. Franklin. The film often looks great — the costumes in particular, designed by Clint Ramos. And there’s a lot of joy in watching some of Franklin’s biggest hits come together, including “Think,” “Natural Woman,” and, of course, “Respect.”

But there are weaknesses, too, mostly a byproduct of trying to cram a big story into a couple of hours. An opening sequence, in which 10-year-old Aretha is called out of bed by her father to sing for a group of friends at the house, seems mainly intended to underline how many famous people the Franklins knew. But it more than once introduces characters with clunky exposition, of the kind once skewered by Walk Hard in an immortal line: “What do you think, George Harrison of the Beatles?”

Perhaps more troublingly, the roughest edges of Franklin’s life seem to have been sanded off, from family drama to abusive relationships. While her childhood pregnancies are part of the story, and the ability of the men around her to be cruel and violent is evident (the film makes this particularly clear with her father and with her first husband, Ted White, played by Marlon Wayans), the full extent is truncated, likely for the purpose of streamlining the storytelling.

Three women sit at a piano, singing.
Hailey Kilgore, Jennifer Hudson, and Saycon Sengbloh in Respect.
Quantrell D. Colbert/MGM

You can only do so much in two hours. But this also undercuts the film’s aspirations to find the meaning in Franklin’s life. Respect comes close to understanding that the real problem with the conventional musician biopic lies in its inability to see the forest for the trees. That many rockers and singers have similar life stories isn’t surprising; what’s frustrating is the tendency to put a person’s true life events in chronological order and assume that makes it a good story.

Respect does more to craft a throughline. It tells a story of Aretha Franklin breaking through, moving from a life of appeasing powerful men’s egos and tempers to demanding that they respect her. Trauma in the past shapes us in ways we can’t always anticipate, and the film sees Franklin’s musical journey as a parallel to her personal story.

So when the full extent of what she had to deal with — along with her sisters, mother, and other women who gravitated to her — gets softened, it backfires, not fully showing why Franklin’s music, which revels in an aspirational feeling of liberation, resonated so widely. (It’s worth noting that, for instance, C.L. Franklin also fathered a child by a 12-year-old parishioner.)

Two movies are battling within Respect. One is a conventional biopic, made for fans to just enjoy spending time with their favorite singer and learning basic info about her life. The other is a better, smarter one, which leans into the full meaning of freedom. In a way, then, the film is a reminder of why we keep leaning back into the same musician arc: It’s familiar, pleasurable in the manner of an excellent cover of your favorite album. But the best biopics give audiences a new way to look at a great artist, a new lens onto their work — and it’s in the moments that Respect turns in that direction that you see what it could have been.

Respect opens in theaters on August 13.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.