Laying the groundwork for Hudson is Skye Dakota Turner, who plays the young Aretha in the early scenes of “Respect.” In her short screen time, she skillfully telegraphs both the joys and the trauma that will influence the adult version of her character. A born performer, she holds the audience in the palm of her hand when Re’s father, Rev. C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker) drags her out of bed to perform at a party filled with Black performer royalty like Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige in a short, effective cameo). “She’s only 10, but her voice is going on 30,” we’re told. Turner’s reactions to Audra McDonald (in an underwritten part as Franklin’s mother) make a later scene between Hudson and McDonald more powerful than anything in the script. Her performance appropriately haunts the film.
There’s a fair amount of ugliness in Franklin’s story—sexual assault, domestic abuse, alcoholism—and it’s to the film’s credit that it resists the temptation to treat these issues salaciously. But “Respect” never goes deeper than a surface-level exploration of how these traumas affected Franklin. They’re referred to as “the demons,” and kind of left at that. This makes it harder to understand something like her relationship with the abusive Ted White (Marlon Wayans), a man her father immediately tags as bad news because he correctly sees a reflection of his own egregious sins. Wayans is a better actor than films like “A Haunted House” indicate, but he’s not adept at balancing a charming exterior with a rotten core; someone like Larenz Tate would have brought that more effectively to this role. Like so many things, White is best summed up by an Aretha Franklin song lyric. In this case, it’s the succinctly brilliant opening lines of “I Never Loved A Man”: “You’re a no good heartbreaker, you’re a liar and you’re a cheat. And I don’t know why I let you do these things to me.”
That song features in one of those biopic tropes where the singer seems to pull a song out of thin air. Except here, it works because “Respect” uses it to frame Franklin’s improvisational and arrangement skills. The one moment we see her writing a song, it’s only the skeleton of her bluesy masterpiece “Dr. Feelgood.” Hudson captures the humble side of Franklin in the scene where she sings “Ain’t No Way,” a composition by her sister, Carolyn (Hailey Kilgore). “Show me how to sing your song,” she says, fully immersed in the collaboration. (This performance is also the closest Hudson comes to an approximation of the real thing.) There’s so much music here, being written, arranged, and performed onscreen, that “Respect” almost plays like a musical.