They made a movie about the Queen of Soul that...kind of lacked a bit of soul. And it’s almost like they saw Judd Apatow’s parody biopic flick Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, and the filmmakers said -- let’s cover all the ground they covered there. Every trope we’ve seen before. But at the end of the day, on a hot summer day you’re spending two hours and 15 minutes in an air conditioned movie theatre listening to Jennifer Hudson sing Aretha Franklin songs. I can certainly think of a lot worse ways to spend your time.
We’ve all heard the story about how Franklin tapped Hudson to play her. I just thought Hudson didn’t look enough like her (or necessarily sound like her, but I’d much rather have the artist sing instead of lip synch to the real tracks). Hudson was also a bit weak in the acting department, and at times seemed to lack conviction.
The younger version of her, played by Skye Dakota Turner, was amazing.
Director Liesl Tommy did a decent job with the script Tracey Scott Wilson provided, but the film felt uneven at times. It’s also one of the few Forest Whitaker performances I wasn’t so fond of. He almost delved into Faye Dunaway/Joan Crawford Mommie Dearest territory.
When we first meet young Aretha, her preacher dad Clarence (Whitaker) wakes her up to be the entertainment for an elaborate party. Nothing like being roused from bed to see Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige) and Sam Cooke chillin’ out in your living room.
When mom Barbara (Audra McDonald) comes to pick her up, with dad smoking and holding a brandy snifter in hand, we realize where this is going.
It was interesting to see Aretha’s relationship with Reverend James Cleveland (Tituss Burgess), who tells her music will save her life (it seemed perhaps the opposite, during most of the movie). I also never knew of Aretha’s relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or her involvement in the civil rights movement and with Angela Davis.
I did know of the fight her husband had with the head of the Muscle Shoals studio, and I was glad that was shown here (a better movie that covers that is the documentary Muscle Shoals). It’s nice that the house band (The Swampers) got some love (as did Carole King, sort of, in the closing credits).
As if it wasn’t creepy enough to see how Aretha ended up with two kids as a teenager, watching Ted White (well played by Marlon Wayans) enter the scene was interesting. We can all tell this hustler is bad news, but hey...love is blind (or, rebelling against your controlling daddy…)
Another pleasant surprise in this film were the record producers. Often on screen, they’re cliche types. And my favorite part of music biopics is watching the artists create their masterpieces [the only thing worthwhile in the Brian Wilson movie was watching Paul Dano play the genius making Pet Sounds in the studio]. The producers here -- first is Tate Donovan playing the head of Columbia. He’s a nice enough guy, but doesn’t have much success with her series of albums covering standards. When Marc Maron [side note: check out his great podcast] enters the picture, we think he’s going to be the slick salesman type. Yet he is more than just a one-dimensional character. My two favorite scenes with him -- trying to convince her to go to Alabama to record, and another snapping at her husband who would rather turn down six figures playing shows in Europe, to instead appear on the Carol Burnett Show.
I always make fun of biopics that do these certain scenes. In Bohemian Rhapsody, it was showing Queen finally making it big, and colorful fonts appear on the screen listing the various countries they’re playing. It worked a little better here, showing album covers, with the year underneath. Yet it would have been more interesting to see her rising to fame and how her life is changing. Instead, all of a sudden we see this huge house she’s living in. And even though this has been done before, and I saw it coming -- always powerful to have one scene with her singing in church to a small crowd, to have the camera pan around as she’s singing the same song -- to a huge Madison Square Garden audience. You get shivers.
But seeing those album covers across the screen...makes us think (no pun intended) -- are we watching a melodramatic Wikipedia movie?
When it comes to the music, as I said, hearing Hudson sing Aretha is wonderful.
Kris Bowers, the underrated talent that helped bring us Green Book, does a nice job here with the score.
I liked hearing Otis Redding’s original version of Respect (which I like better). And seeing a young Aretha sing Ella Fitzgerald’s My Girl Likes to Bebop is almost worth the price of admission.
And I never tire of hearing Sam Cooke or Jackie Wilson in pictures. The one misstep with the music is when they played Hendrix’s Hey Joe. First, the song was released in 1967, not the year on screen -- 1966. They could have used one of the terrific versions that Arthur Lee & Love, Music Machine, or The Standells gave us in ‘66. Also, the song didn’t really fit the scene.
Hudson won an Oscar in her debut movie (Dreamgirls), and she’ll surely get an Oscar nomination for this.
2 ½ stars out of 5.
Side note: I’ll always be jealous of my friend Glenn, a cameraman, who filmed Aretha’s diner scene singing Think in The Blues Brothers.
Bonus Track Fact: Josh Mikel, who often plays a bad guy (I loved him in Game Night, my wife loved him in The Walking Dead); he plays Swampers drummer Roger Hawkins. In real life, he was the drummer in the band Look Mexico. Sadly, the real Hawkins died a few months ago.