Aretha Franklin ‘Respect’ Movie: A Tale of Amazing Grace

Dr. Craig von BuseckBy Dr. Craig von BuseckJanuary 16, 20236 Minutes

It has been a season of biopics for iconic musicians, from Brian Wilson to Elton John. Now we can add “the queen of soul,” Aretha Franklin to the list with ‘Respect.’

The film features Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson – handpicked for the part by Franklin herself – in a role that could secure another Oscar for the talented actor and singer. There are moments where Hudson disappears so fully into the character, that one feels as though they are watching documentary footage. The movie spans Aretha’s lifetime, from the loss of her loving mother in her childhood, through her meteoric rise to stardom – with all it’s blessings and temptations – to the dark days of her broken marriage. The film concludes with Aretha finally emerging into the light of love in her family and her church.

Directed by Liesl Tommy, with a moving story by Tracey Scott Wilson and Callie Khouri, ‘Respect’ is follows Franklin through the maze of discovery to super stardom. The movie also stars Forest Whitaker, Audra Day, Tituss Burgess, Marc Maron, and Marlon Wayans.

Through the pre-production and planning stages, lead actress Jennifer Hudson formed a special bond with the real Aretha Franklin, who passed away in 2018. “I miss hearing from her,” Hudson explained. “I used to hear from her weekly.”

The film’s creators desired to show the full story, both the good and the bad, of Aretha’s amazing career – ending with the filming and recording of her 1972 album, “Amazing Grace.”

Early in the film we see Aretha as a child, singing with her mother – played by Audra Day – who has recently left her father. The youngster receives wise counsel and a warning from her mother. “Nobody owns your voice but God. You are so worthy. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” Tragically, Aretha’s mother passes away not long after, leaving a void that the young musician has difficulty filling.

After her mother’s death, Aretha’s minister father – played by Oscar winner, Forest Whitaker – recognizes her singing genius and takes her with him on his ministry tours. On the road, Aretha meets many leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr. Aretha often travels with her father and Dr. King to sing at various rallies and events. During a time of transition and decision for Aretha, King encourages her: “Jesus is with us every step of the way.” Aretha would later sing at King’s funeral.

The Baton of Brokenness

In ‘Respect,’ we see the baton of brokenness handed from one generation of Aretha Franklin’s family to the next, sometimes with the most tragic of consequences. But in the midst of the sorrow and pain, we also see how this same family unites through music and faith to come full circle to healing.

Marlon Wayans, who has played mostly comedic roles in his career, impresses with his portrayal of Aretha’s abusive husband. Just before she leaves him because of his violent behavior, he warns her that she won’t be able to fight her demons without him. “After being with you,” she responds, “I’m ready for them.”

Battling those demons, Aretha sinks to her lowest place, giving way to alcohol abuse and pushing her loved ones away. At her darkest moment, she remembers sitting at the piano and singing gospel music with her mother. She remembers her time in church with her father and her family. She realizes it is time for a change. She decides to record a gospel album – a controversial choice that her record label tries to talk her out of.

Explaining her reason for a gospel record when she is at the peak of her secular career, Aretha declares, “I need the Spirit and the Church. He was with me. I tried to run from Him, but He brought me back.”

“Like Jonah?” her father gently responds, and Aretha simply nods.

A family friend, pastor, and fellow musician reinforces her decision to record the gospel record. “You’re in church now, and you’re safe. So, let’s have church.”

To honor the recording of this gospel album, four generations of the Franklin family – including her pastor father – gather on the front row of the church. The movie concludes with Aretha’s soulful and unforgettable rendition of Amazing Grace. She has come full circle, back into the arms of her Savior, her church, and her family. The album becomes the biggest selling record of her career.

In the end, for Aretha – and for all of us – it all comes down to amazing grace.

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