Jennifer Hudson delivers a powerhouse performance in this joyous but cliched Aretha Franklin biopic

It’s been a rough few years for that erstwhile cinematic perennial - the music biopic. Freddie Mercury flick Bohemian Rhapsody suffered from a strange and frustrating squeamishness, Rocketman took a bravely idiosyncratic approach to Elton John’s loopy career and largely succeeded and best to banish all memories of the jaw-droppingly awful Bowie film Stardust.

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So, a lot is riding on an embattled genre with Respect, the long percolating Aretha Franklin biopic from first time feature director Liesl Tommy.

It certainly hits a lot of right notes thanks to a stellar title performance from Jennifer Hudson, a star who has long escaped her lowly TV talent show beginnings to emerge as a triple threat performer. That she can sing is obvious - and she nails Aretha’s heartache of a voice - but she also captures the Queen of Soul’s early lack of confidence, her erratic mid-career militancy, and her canny decision to go right back to the start in the early seventies with empathy and, well, amazing grace.

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Handpicked to play the part by Aretha herself, the quietly charismatic Hudson has a lot in common with her idol. Both grew up singing in gospel choirs with no formal musical training and both have been through a lot of family heartache and trauma. However, Liesl has decided to shroud the more painful aspects of Franklin’s life in a gauze of ambiguity that is at a piece with Respect’s rather sanitised look and feel.

Instead, friction and drama come in the young Aretha’s struggle to be heard in a manipulative male-dominated industry which mindbogglingly wanted her to be the "black Judy Garland". It’s Aretha’s determination to do things her own way that gives the film its spark and fighting spirit.

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Hudson does her best with a hackneyed script and she is ably supported by Forest Whitaker as her father, the Baptist Minister C. L. Franklin. He was a superstar in his own right and also a man who clearly loved his daughter but was justifiably suspicious of a 1960s music industry who treated women, especially black women, as chattel.

Marc Maron is good as visionary record label Jerry Wexler, while Mary J Blige shines as a foul-mouthed Dinah Washington, who encourages rising star Aretha but is also enraged with envy that she is fast becoming yesterday’s woman as a new voice arrives on the scene.

However, its Marlon Wayans' excellent performance as Aretha’s hot-headed first husband and manager Ted White that deserves second billing. White is a man with a righteous fury for the white man as the Civil Rights movement comes to the boil and as he wrestles with his own deeply etched personal issues.

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There is a lot of episodic music biopic convention going on here (world tour/magazine montage, anyone?) but Tommy’s secret weapon is letting the music speak for itself. Respect features several stand-out extended set-pieces that really get into the nitty gritty of the song-writing and recording process and they are by far the best thing about the film.

Too polished and too produced, Franklin had to rebel against her overly protective daddy, the brass at Columbia records and the increasingly abusive White to find her voice and her bold decision to head south in 1967 to record at Muscle Shoals studios in Alabama was her career breakthrough after years of flops and false starts.

The scenes that belt out the music and Hudson’s journey from little girl lost to soul powerhouse lift Respect out of the workmanlike.

Alan Corr @CorrAlan2