Liesl Tommy (director)
10 September 2021 (released)
09 September 2021
Looking to concentrate on the domestic and political side of Aretha Franklin’s life director, Liesl Tommy, with writers Trace Scott Wilson and Callie Khouri, made a calculated judgment that there is enough interest in that side of her life to carry an audience. That decision is partially vindicated as Aretha had a full life away from music with her involvement with the church and the civil rights movement. She also at times had a ghastly life handling physical, mental and alcohol abuse.
We start at the beginning with Rita – nicknamed Re for most of the film - (Skye Dakota Turner) at the family home with siblings and already a recognised talent when she performs at a party hosted by her overbearing father Rev CL Franklin (Forest Whitaker) with guests such as Al Green present. Her wonder at the guests and the party is shaken off when in her bedroom Aretha is abused and pregnant at twelve.
Moving forward a few years and Jennifer Hudson is now Re. She’s bolder and confident with a recording contract but the albums aren’t selling. So a change of management and musicians is called for and after some teething problems and fights, the hits begin roll out.
Away from the music we are taken through Aretha’s complicated relationship with her father, the devastation of the death of her mother Barbara (Audra McDonald), her rocky marriage to Ted White (Marlon Wayans) and her siblings, who were wary of Ted from the start. A child, and beatings later the relationship with Ted starts to fall apart with Aretha, now a worldwide star, finding solace in her tour manager Ken Cunningham (Albert Jones) and booze.
The latter affecting all aspects of her life, making her terrible to deal with in private. In public there are concert cancellations or she turns up so drunk she falls off the stage. Her involvement in the civil rights movement sees her meet with Martin Luthor King Jr (Gilbert Glenn Brown) and deals with the aftermath of his assassination. Hitting the bottom, something has to give. Aretha sobers up, goes back to the record company with an audacious idea to record and film a gospel concert in a church which ends the film, sort of.
The film is not a slog but for over two and a half-hours the viewer is shunted from one life milestone to another which gets the story told but is a fractured viewing experience. And it’s not helped by the languid camera that circles 360° around Jennifer Hudson almost every time she sings. Hudson is terrific in all aspects of the role cutting a sympathetic and pathetic figure in the more sensitive parts when alcoholism and borderline megalomania begin to manifest.
Where the film scores strongly is in the reconstruction of recording sessions where composers, musicians, singers and producers develop the songs from the germ of an idea. It doesn’t matter how accurate these are they look and sound authentic giving some insight into the creative process. Similarly, the record company meetings enforce that they are in a business and they all want hits with Aretha was as hungry for them as anyone else.
Ending the film with the gospel album and film would have been fitting as it defined an era, was her biggest selling album and has relatively recently been restored and released.
However choosing to use real footage of Aretha Franklin performing over the end credits at the Kennedy Center in 2015 was probably a mistake. It is a sublime performance of pure emotion and power as she plays piano and sings (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, the audience including Barack Obama barely holding back the tears. This sequence comes close to undermining almost everything that has come before.