Jennifer Hudson shines in this so-so biopic
Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin, the much-lauded Queen of Soul, in this Hollywood biopic that charts the singer’s life from an unhappy childhood to adult stardom. As a tribute to the star, it’s worthy enough but if you’re looking for an incisive look at the troubled character of Franklin, you might be disappointed by this paper-thin retelling of her story.
This isn’t to say the movie avoids the painful trials and tribulations that marked her journey and shaped her character. Most of the key moments that form a part of her story are present and correct here, including the various forms of abuse that she suffered at the hands of the men in her life, but it’s perhaps too respectful of Franklin, as it skims over the addiction problems that were a consequence of the traumas she suffered as both a child and adult.
Still, the performances do much to cover up any flaws that exist within the story so it’s easy to get swept up in the movie, regardless of the rushed narrative. Jennifer Hudson deserves to get the most mention perhaps, as she delivers a powerhouse performance as the troubled star. She has both the acting chops and the singing voice to successfully convey Franklin’s personality and talents, so it’s little wonder that she was Franklin’s personal choice for the role.
Special credit also needs to go to Skye Dakota Turner who plays Franklin as a child. She displays a tenderness that belies her young age and has the singing voice to match that of the Soul Queen’s younger self when she was forced to become a pulpit singer.
Forrest Whittaker is excellent as Franklin’s forceful father, a man who was both loving and selfish as he pushed his daughter to perform in front of his church congregation. And Marlon Wayans ably takes on a rare serious role as Ted White, the singer’s physically abusive husband/manager who was later disgraced in the media after his violence was witnessed by a journalist.
Franklin is the main focus of the film, of course, but there is still room to explore some of the racial tensions that existed at the time. Franklin counted Martin Luther King among her friends and the movie makes it clear that he was a major inspiration for the person that she eventually came to be; a singer who not only sang for fame and fortune but who also used her position to perform at fundraisers that benefited Black rights movements.
Fans of the singer will enjoy the many renditions of her music as will lovers of soul music in general. Such hits as ‘I’ll Never Love a Man’ and ‘Think’ are successfully conveyed by Hudson, not only in terms of Franklin’s voice but in spirit too. Hudson isn’t an exact copy of Franklin just as Joaquin Phoenix wasn’t a complete replica of Johnny Cash in Walk The Line. But as befits the movie’s title, Hudson is respectful of the late star and she gives a turn that echoes her, even if it doesn’t nail every aspect of her character and talents.
This isn’t a definitive account of Franklin’s life so you shouldn’t expect a warts and all biopic here. It’s more of a reverential piece that plays more to fans of the singer’s star status and music than those who want a deeper look at her inner struggles and personal demons. But as the movie has a sizeable running time of almost two and a half hours, it’s perhaps a small mercy that it doesn’t try to cover every single facet of Franklin’s tragic but triumphant history or the various intricacies that made up her personality.
The film ends with Franklin’s rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in LA, a moment that has now gone down in music history as one of the greatest performances ever committed to film and record. Hudson sings the song with gusto but she delivers more than just the powerful words that make up this spiritual hymn.
She also encapsulates Franklin’s life at this point, as the song was more than just a simple recording for the singer. It was a reminder of her journey and how she had survived through the grace of others and the grace of God after fighting the demons that had taken root in her life along the way. It’s little wonder that Franklin gave such a powerful performance as the song had special meaning for her and it’s to Hudson’s credit that she recreates this so memorably.
But at the end of the day, this is just another music biopic that features the plot points we have seen before in films of this sort. Childhood flashbacks, recording rows, marital battles, and moments of redemption, all play out here in a formulaic fashion. Of course, as the events covered in the movie are supposedly true, such moments can be expected as the story runs its course.
But the movie could have been so much more than a straightforward telling of Franklin’s life. It could have delved further into her psyche and her troubled past. And it could have explored more deeply the prejudices that women of colour had to put with at the time.
As such, this is an okay movie that ticks all of the boxes you might expect from a biopic but it doesn’t push the boundaries of the genre. It’s good enough and offers respect to the singer, but it doesn’t respect the needs of moviegoers who want something more than just another celebration of a great talent.
Verdict - 6.5/10