Aretha Franklin and the Futility of Trying to Portray Her Onscreen

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The biographer David Ritz wrote of this distance in “Respect,” his second book on Franklin, saying, “In spite of my determination to be a compassionate listener, someone whose gentle persistence would allow her to reveal all her sacred secrets, my technique ultimately did not work. In the end, I didn’t make a dent in her armor.”

Further reflecting on his first biography, “Aretha: From These Roots,” which he wrote based on interviews with Franklin, and which thus had her blessing, he said, “She got the book she wanted. To this day, Aretha considers her book an accurate portrait.”

Franklin’s imprint is all over the film “Respect” as well. She handpicked Hudson, a move that set music as the center of the movie but risked the appearance that Hudson’s depiction might be too dependent on Franklin’s own self-image. In other words, as good as the music sounds (and it sounds soooooo very, very good), the plot holes about her past, which seemed to inform much of her character’s decision-making, kept nagging at me as I watched.

Why did her mother, Barbara (Audra McDonald), leave her children behind with her domineering husband, the Rev. C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), only to show up, after her death, as an angelic force in Aretha’s life?

Why doesn’t Aretha remember having to rush to the roof and sing loudly with her sisters as children in order to drown out her parents fighting?

And what is the shame the film keeps hinting at, but, like Aretha, never wants to confront?

What does she need music to save her from?


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