The biopic formula is stale, and it’s time to rework the equation.
We keep seeing the same thing. A child loves music, has crappy parental figures, faces struggles or physical ailments, then gets famous, does drugs or drinks, and gets clean. Rinse and repeat. Not to be taken lightly, Jennifer Hudson is one of the best vocalists alive, however, Hollywood continues to lean on her aural talents in movies, rather than provide her with substantive material to interpret and execute.
In 40 years, we’ll likely be at the precipice of a Hudson biopic. An extraordinary singer who auditioned for the third season of “American Idol” in 2004, singing an Aretha Franklin number “Share Your Love With Me.” She would shockingly place seventh on the show and two years later would make her acting debut opposite Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles and Eddie Murphy in Bill Condon’s musical adaptation, “Dreamgirls.” For her work as Effie White, she won an Academy Award for supporting actress. The elements of her personal life will be her decision to share or not and that will be what gives cinephiles fear. Will those future producers look for a woman who can match Hudson’s stunning vocals or will they place a focus on acting ability and story development?
We spend a decent chunk of the film following a young Aretha, played by newcomer Skye Dakota Turner. In that time, the viewer is browbeaten to know that as a little girl she loved her mother, and she loved to sing, but then it’s only suggested that she may or may not have been molested while her preacher father held sex parties at their home? It’s unclear what screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson was able to include on the page from Ms. Franklin’s estate, or what Oscar-winning scribe Callie Khouri (“Thelma & Louise”), who has a story by credit, may have explored, but if you can’t go to the brims of full life examination and exploration, some figures are best left untouched.
This doesn’t suggest that Hudson doesn’t inhabit both of these qualities, even in her depiction of the “Queen of Soul.” Her moments of note are in any scene in which she is showcasing her powerful vocals, in particular, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and the titular “Respect.” But as we’ve seen her career be steered solely to a focus on her aural sensation in films such as “Black Nativity” and “Cats,” both of which don’t match up critically, I’m eager to see her jump into a role that will allow her an emotional arc, not beset on previously sourced material that’s as well known as Franklin or Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The feature was originally set for release during the 2020 pandemic year, and it’s interesting to think if Hudson could have factored into the best actress race which included both Viola Davis (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) and Andra Day (“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”). Could she have pushed one aside, or give a run to eventual winner Frances McDormand (“Nomadland”), who she’ll have as a fellow competitor this year for the upcoming “The Tragedy of Macbeth?” Hudson may stay within the conversation for best actress, as some will pluck her out as a bright spot, but she’ll face significant challenges when the fall festival contenders begin to drop and her film is further from the voting window.
First-time director Liesl Tommy, who is the first Black woman to earn a Tony nomination for best direction of a play, is not the problem with “Respect.” The film has a very good sense of framework, and a vision on the aesthetics and larger set pieces that would be well utilized in future projects. At 145 minutes, the film feels like two separate themed projects, neither of which has direct insight into who Aretha Franklin was. She’s giving us hints with no payoff. The editing by Avril Beukes, whose most notable credit is “Yesterday” (2004), which was nominated for foreign language in 2004 for South Africa, is too bloated. You can see there was an evolution to trying to “find the film” in the editing room but it never got there. One of the best scenes of the movie is the creation of “Respect” with Franklin and her sisters, but a film critic and cinephile’s worst feeling occurred — looking at your watch and realizing you are about 75 minutes in, and there’s more than an hour left in this journey.
Most of the supporting cast just can’t create enough memorable moments, at least in an awards conversation. Marc Maron is the best of the bunch as Jerry Wexler because he doesn’t have the cross to bear of creating a Tennessee accent in circa 1960, which is so inconsistent among the rest of the cast, it starts to mirror more parody than honest reenactments. Underutilized and criminally brief are Audra McDonald and Mary J. Blige, who could have probably saved the film from itself given more central focuses. There might be avenue for Clint Ramos’ bright and polished costume work or Kris Bowers’ swelling music to factor in but campaigns and audience reactions may be critical to keep them alive.
Films about legendary artists and icons need to be explored in the slices of life format, focusing on a particular time period rather than the cradle-to-grave stamp. Some of the most memorable depictions of artists are those that tell their stories in an unconventional way. Todd Haynes tackles Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There,” with six actors depicting different time periods of his career, including the Oscar-nominated Cate Blanchett. Milos Forman focuses on the rivalry between composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) and Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), utilizing struggles as support tools, not pillars.
“Respect” may not be the slam-dunk awards contender, but “Bohemian Rhapsody” didn’t seem like one either, and we all know how that turned out.
The film opens in theaters on Aug. 13.