This is fine, for an inexact start.
Director Liesl Tommy
Screenplay Callie Khouri, Tracey Scott Wilson
Starring Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Marc Maron, Tituss Burgess, Mary J. Blige, Skye Dakota
Aretha Franklin has always been an enigma with an incredible voice in my life. I have enjoyed her music for years, without knowing all that much about ther dynamo behind it. I looked forward to this movie, knowing that Jennifer Hudson had been preparing for it for quite some time. For her part, this movie is a grand success. Her voice resonates with power and purpose no matter what circumstance.
The rest of the film depends on how one likes their musical biopics. For those who want their biopics historically or even emotionally accurate, this film lacks the classic amount of resonance one might expect from a story told openly. What we get are grains of the truth meant to fit around the narrative of some of her best songs. If protected grains of truth leading to the creation of a bigger myth is what you want, one could do a whole lot worse.
The story starts off with a young Aretha (Dakota) being brought out of sleep at age 10 to sing for a party of luminaries at her father’s (Whitaker) house. They include Sam Cook, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Dina Washington (Blige). Soon after we see her with her mother (McDonald), who is estranged but still a huge influence on young Aretha. Soon after, her mother has passed and the next thing we see a young Franklin who is involved in the movement of MLK, Jr. Here we discover the deep roots of her faith and her belief in the cause.
We also discover she is the mother of two young boys.
The latter is something I had little awareness of, and the filmmakers don’t feel the need to do more than hint. Truth is, no one knows who fathered her first child at the age of 12. The questions abound with just this, but there is little effort to do more than hint how this occurred. It seems that her father’s status and money were enough to cover for this and keep his thriving ministry going strong.
The story goes through her early career up to the point of her Amazing Grace album. We see the standard issues with her father, an abusive husband and a battle with substances. We see some astounding moments, like when she finds her voice in Memphis in the presence of the Muscle Shoals band. Her intrinsic understanding of where the balance of music and feeling reside is something to behold. It never occurred to me how much “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” has behind it.
The centerpiece of the film is in the song of its title. Her obsession with reworking the song that Otis Redding wrote (“just a little bit” she says) is brought to life with her sister to a completely different version of the classic that will forever be known as the standard.
The last act would be more moving if there were more of a clarity to what leads up to it. Even her drinking is somethng more alluded to until well into the second act. We know that she has plenty to overcome. More than most biopics, it feels like there is more on the cutting room floor than we see on the screen.
That said, it is a fantastic ride to see Franklin find her center and learning to understand the power she possessed. It would feel more complete if it didn’t feel like we were only seeing what they wanted us to see. This is fine, for an inexact start.
(***1/2 out of *****)