Aretha Franklin movie Respect under fire for failing to capture heartache and pain

By Sarah Robertson

Take the tale of a troubled gospel singer who became the first woman in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and you are guaranteed one of the year’s biggest movies.

Yet Respect – a celebration of Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin and named after one of her biggest hits – is under fire from critics who say it fails to capture the full heartache and pain that powered her great ballads.

Growing up in Detroit in the 40s and 50s, Aretha had given birth to two of her four sons by the age of 15.

Her father Clarence – or CL Franklin, as he preferred – was a Baptist minister known as “the man with the million-dollar voice” ­because of his style both in the pulpit and on radio shows across the US.

But biographer David Ritz tells of the “promiscuous” preacher’s highly charged sermons at New Bethel Baptist Church and the orgies said to have sometimes taken place there.

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Aretha became the first woman in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (Michael Ochs Archives)

The church was once branded a “sex circus” by singer Ray Charles.

By the time Franklin married Aretha’s mother, Barbara Siggers, he had a daughter allegedly ­conceived when he raped a 12-year-old member of his congregation.

The marriage was dogged by tales of his womanising, and Aretha’s parents separated when she was six. Four years later, when Aretha was just nine, her mother died of a heart attack at the age of 34.

A young Aretha picutured in the late 60s, applying her make-up before a show (Getty Images)
Aretha was a young mother but did not let this dull her ambitions to become a star (Michael Ochs Archives)

By then her father was a celebrity on the church circuit, with famous friends including civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr and singers Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke.

But while he was busy preaching and entertaining other women, it left the young Aretha vulnerable.

At age 12 she became pregnant by a school friend, giving birth just two months shy of her 13th birthday. She called the boy Clarence, after her father.

Aretha delivering one of her show-stopping performances on the Andy Williams show in 1969 (NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

An eight-part National Geographic series, Genius: Aretha, which premiered earlier this year, portrayed her sobbing as she tries to comprehend being pregnant as a child.

It shows her grandmother trying to find the boy responsible, while her father shrugs it off, saying they should accept it as “a part of the mission God has for her”.

Her second son was born five months after her 15th birthday. She named him Edward after his father.

In a will written later in life, she claims both boys had the same dad.

But Aretha, who had been a gospel singer at her father’s church, did not let motherhood dull her ambitions to become a star.

She dropped out of school, leaving her grandmother Rachel and sister Erma to raise her children and set off at 16 on a civil rights tour with Dr King. Just 10 years later, in 1968, she sang at his funeral after he was assassinated.

Aretha poses with her then husband and manager Ted White in New York City in the early 60s (Michael Ochs Archives)

It is in her teenage years that jazz singer Dinah Washington – played in the film by Mary J Blige – is said to have told producer Quincy Jones that Aretha was “the next one”.

In 1961, at 19, she wed the charming Ted White – who made himself her manager and fathered her third son, Ted Jr. Their marriage was rocky and Aretha kicked him out in 1968.

By now she had released 26 ­records with Columbia but had failed to make a dent in the charts.

Aretha recorded the anthemic Sisters Are Doin It For Themselves with The Eurythmics (Newcastle Chronicle)

Then in 1967, after moving to Atlantic Records, she had a top 10 hit with I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You). It was followed in the same year by Respect, which went to No1, and top 10 hits Baby I Love You, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman and Chain of Fools.

As her career grew, so did her family – in 1970 she had her fourth son, Kecalf. His father was her then road manager, Ken Cunningham.

In 1972 she released live gospel album Amazing Grace, often reckoned to be the pinnacle of her career.

Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder performing during the finale of the 'VH1 Divas Live at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, 2001 (Getty Images)

It won her a Grammy and in the years since has gone double-platinum. It remains the highest-selling live gospel album of all time.

In 1978 Aretha married film star Glynn Turman. Then in 1979 her father was shot at his home, spending five years in a coma before his death.

With another marriage in tatters, Aretha returned to Detroit in 1982 to care for her father in his last years.

Her friend Ruth Bowen claimed the failure of ­another relationship sent the singer’s mental health into a spiral.

Aretha was known as the 'Queen of Soul' (Reuters)

She said: “She gets up every day and creates her own reality.

She started seeing her love life like a soap opera, fantasising about men and relationships that never existed.”

As recently as 2012, aged 70, Aretha was still seeking that happiness – getting engaged to long-time pal Willie Wilker­son but calling it off shortly ­afterwards.

Yet despite all the drama of Aretha’s life, the film has been accused of failing to lay bare her earlier tragedies.

Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin and Mary J Blige as Dinah Washington in the movie Respect (© 2020 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved)

When it chronicles her descent into alcoholism, it is said to lack feeling due to the absence of the childhood trauma from which it stems.

Critics say there is even a lack of emotion in the climax, in which Aretha, played by Jennifer Hudson, prepares to perform Amazing Grace – the defining project of her career.

Aretha died in August 2018, aged 76, from a tumour on her pancreas. Among those visiting her on her deathbed were Stevie Wonder and political activist Jesse Jackson.

US President Barack Obama paid tribute, saying she had “helped define the American experience”.

Aretha with singer and actress Jennifer Hudson who plays her Aretha in Respect, the biopic of the soul icon's life (FilmMagic)
Aretha Franklin chose Jennifer, pictured as Aretha in the film, to play her before she died (The poster for the 2021 Aretha Franklin biopic Respect, starring Jennifer Hudson)

The film ends with 2015 footage of Obama moved to tears as he watches Aretha perform her hit (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.

With her song Respect, from which the film takes its title, adopted as an anthem of the civil rights movement, Aretha took great pride in the historical and social legacy of her music.

In her autobiography, Aretha: From These Roots, she called the song “an ongoing blessing in my life”.

She wrote: “It was the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher – everyone wanted respect.”

Aretha’s life had been shaped by the segregation and racism of the Deep South – another area the biopic is accused of overlooking.

Defending her decisions, director Liesl Tommy said: “The thing that kept coming to me was the idea of a woman who has the greatest voice in the world – but who still doesn’t know what her voice is.

“She was able to musicalise her lived experience… there is a handful of people on Planet Earth who were given the gift of that sound.

Aretha passed away from advanced pancreatic cancer on August 16, 2018 at age 76 (AFP/Getty Images)

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“Aretha’s legacy plumbs the depths and the highs of humanity and she tells us that every part of being a ­human being is okay.”

Writer Tracey Scott Wilson added: “She wasn’t born the Queen of Soul. She became the Queen of Soul. The journey is how does she become it.”

Praising Hudson’s portrayal, she added: “Jennifer knew Aretha and sang with her, so Aretha chose Jennifer to play her.

“It’s amazing how she can embody her physically and vocally.”

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