REVIEW:  Comparing music biopic ‘Respect’ and anthology series ‘Genius:  Aretha Franklin’

Maybe it was because I went in with the highest of expectations. 

When casting was announced for the Aretha Franklin film biopic, Respect, the anticipation for this film soared.  A cast that included Academy award-winner Forrest Whittaker, multi-Tony award winner Audra McDonald and starring Academy Award-winning Jennifer Hudson as Aretha, it seemed this film could do no wrong.  In many ways, it didn’t and in other ways, it did.  The movie has my respect, but can’t quite pinpoint exactly why it wasn’t as spectacular as it should have been.

Though Respect is no longer in theatres, it is streaming on HBO Max, VOD, and other platforms.  National Geographic’s Genius:  Aretha Franklin is available on Hulu

This is not to say that Jennifer Hudson did not deliver a phenomenal performance.  Her dynamic vocal range could run circles around almost any singer today.  Just to see her take on the theme song to TV classic, The Jeffersons for Live in front of a Studio Audience:  All in the Family and The Jeffersons, her sass and brilliance shines through even for those select few minutes.  On a larger scale, she performed The Color Purple on Broadway plus watching her sing a live Prince tribute to Purple Rain alongside Cynthia Erivo (who also went on to embody the Queen of Soul in Genius:  Aretha Franklin) the night Prince passed away was probably one of the most endearing versions I have ever heard next to the Purple one himself.

It was the kind of vocals needed to match Aretha Franklin’s superlative falcon soprano voice that mastered an aria for Luciano Pavoratti during a live performance at the 1998 Grammy Awards to the bluesy Chain of Fools to the magnificence of her version of Amazing Grace.

 Jennifer Hudson is unquestionably an incredible talent and yet, watching Respect, it was difficult to envision Aretha Franklin.  Perhaps if Hudson was a less recognizable or not such an established talent in her own right, it might have been easier to picture it.  After watching Respect and Genius:  Aretha Franklin back to back, it was easier to envision Cynthia Erivo in the role of Franklin.  Not only does Erivo look more like Franklin and her distinct vocals a bit closer to Aretha’s, but she also possesses that determination and sass that Aretha was well known for.  However, Erivo also had a lot more room to flourish during an entire season.

Though both adaptations are worth watching, it seems like Genius had too much time to tell Franklin’s story and Respect did not have enough.  Respect sometimes seemed choppy and there are scenes that were featured in Genius that would have been better explored in RespectRespect was once a 3 hour film cut down to 2 hours and 25 minutes, but it would have better with more time.  Genius had plenty of time to tell its story, but some parts lingered on events a bit too long.

Hudson delivers a surprisingly subdued performance compared to the strong presence Franklin displayed in life.  Hudson masters more of Franklin’s natural instinct and wisdom into music as she navigates the music industry from her early misses to her meteoric success from Franklin’s version of the hit song, Respect (which is an Otis Retting song that Franklin undoubtedly made her own). 

Both Respect and Genius:  Aretha Franklin feature epic casts.  A notable portrayal was that of the young version of Franklin, portrayed by Skye Dakota Turner in Respect.  Turner possessed more of the charm, spunk, and valor that Aretha was known for.  It is easy to see Aretha has a song in her heart from the very first scene, especially due to director Liesl Tommy’s vivid cinematography.  Marc Maron delivers an amazing performance as legendary and steadfast music manager Jerry Wexler though the part is not a great departure from other roles he has delivered over the years.  Forrest Whittaker in Respect and Courtney B. Vance in Genius:  Aretha Franklin skillfully portray Franklin’s fiercely protective, stubborn, and seemingly strict preacher father.  Each actor hones in on different aspects of C.L. Franklin’s strong character.  Audra McDonald is dynamite as Barbara Franklin even within her brief screen time.  She delivers a memorable performance at the piano with young Aretha for Irving Kahal’s I’ll Be Seeing You.

Respect is also set up like the standard biopic rather than choosing an unconventional way of sharing excerpts from Franklin’s life.  Much like recent biopics such as Walk the Line, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Judy, Respect uses this narrative structure from fame to childhood and in sequence and in this instance, surrounded by depictions of Martin Luther King Jr, Barry White, Smokey Robinson, Dinah Washington and Sam Cooke along the way.  Though it is an effective formula, it is a bit of a clichéd one.  Genius:  Aretha offers a fresher and unconventional perspective into Franklin’s life delving into an experience Franklin and her father survived together, leaving the viewer to guess what could be next. 

Both biopics have their strengths, but if you are looking for a fresher and more believable take featuring some lesser known experiences on Franklin, dive into Genius:  Aretha Franklin.   Respect features an incredible cast worth watching for its masterful songs featuring a paramount scene featuring Aretha Franklin recording her signature Amazing Grace not to be missed.  Either way, the Queen of Soul’s dynamic life is worth telling twice.

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