- Liesl Tommy
- Run Time
- 2 hours and 25 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
My heart, O God, is steadfast,
my heart is steadfast;
I will sing and make music.
Say therefore to the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment.
Director Liesl Tommy and script writer Tracey Scott Wilson’s film biography of music icon Aretha Franklin certainly deserves our respect—and gratitude. Covering about 29 years of the singer’s life, it begins with her as a ten-year-old rousted out of bed to entertain her father’s guests to the recording of her greatest hit album, Amazing Grace. I was especially interested in her activist role in the Civil Rights Movement and her friendship with the leader whom she called “Uncle Martin,” Martin Luther King, Jr.
The film begins in the early Fifties in Detroit with young Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner) awakened by her father the Rev. C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), telling her she’s to sing for the guests at his late-night party. He is a famous Baptist minister well connected to show business notables. As she winds her way among the party-goers, she greets “Uncle Duke” and “Aunt Ella.” Art Tatum provides the piano accompaniment for Aretha’s song “My Baby Likes to Be-Bop (And I Like to Be-Bop Too” (not exactly an age-appropriate song), and renowned artists like Sam Cook, and Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige) also are among her appreciative audience. One of them exclaims, “She’s 10, but her voice is goin’ on 30, honey.”
Her controlling father is separated from her mother Barbara (Audra McDonald), an accomplished singer herself (there’s a wonderful scene of the two at the piano as the older Franklin sings “I’ll Be Seeing You”). Like too many preachers, C.L. had been interested in more than the souls of some of his female admirers. During the girl’s visits, her mother passes on wisdom that will help her gain control of her life later, such as that the father does not own her voice, God does.
Barbara’s sudden death by heart-attack is traumatic, the girl turning silent, despite the commands of her elders. A second trauma is subtly handled, the sexual molestation by an older man who is a guest at one of her father’s parties. The shaken girl will not even tell her beloved grandmother Mama Franklin (Kimberly Scott) what had been done to her, so the woman only can assure her that no matter what, God loves her.
At her piano lesson with the church’s music director Rev. James Cleveland (Titus Burgess), C.L. orders that Re (as she often is called by family & friends) be prepped for singing the next Sunday. Cleveland reminds her of her love for music and tells her not to let anything come between herself and it. The scene that Sunday begins with the young singer belting out “There is a fountain filled with blood” but switches to the teenage Re concluding it. Now a mother of two (their births, before she entered her teens, also a trauma, with Re refusing to say who their father was) the singer has toured with her father on his preaching circuit and is now singing for a Civil Rights service hosted by C.L. at which Dr. King is the speaker. His energetic sermon is based not only the traditional Exodus story in which Moses tells Pharaoh, traditional stand-in for the White Man, to “Let my people go!” but also the Book of Daniel in which God saves the prophet from the lions (read the White Man). “What is the white man compared to God?” the preacher asks.
The film soon shows that the struggle for freedom was not only a concern for the ancient Israelites and the current Black community, but also for Re herself. Possibly wanting to distance herself from her domineering father, Re tells Dr. King that she doesn’t want just to sing for him and the cause, but also to march with him. Just how formidable a man C.L. is we see as King tries to discourage Re, telling her to talk with C.L. about it. Though a great Civil Rights leader, even Dr. King obviously does not want to displease his friend. Nor does Re when at a family party the suave Ted White (Marlon Wayans) pays attention to her, whereupon C.L. Spots them talking together and orders him to leave.
Later the two meet again and the girl falls for his blandishments. Blinded by love, she does not see the hustler’s dark side until it is too late, the two marrying and Ted replacing C.L. as her manager. She breaks free from her father—he tells her she will beg to return—only to fall under the sway of a man who eventually will physically abuse her physically, as well as emotionally. As her career progresses, her relationship with Ted deteriorates as she begins to assert herself more and more. She had recorded a series of albums at Columbia, but not one song became a hit. It was mainly jazz and pop songs given her, not really her venue.
She is propelled into searching for her own style when Dinah Washington becomes angry at the New York club where Re dares to sing the older woman’s signature song. After her public explosion drives the tear stricken Re from the stage, Washington follows her to her dressing room and talks with her about not copying the style of others. “What music do you want to sing?” she asks sagely. Answering that she does not know, the still teenager will eventually find the answer in her church background.
Although needing to break away from her father and her abusive husband, Re will find at least two good men who help her greatly in her quest to find the music that will become hers. Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records has far greater rapport with her than the clueless execs at Columbia, the result being a series of recordings that become hits. But the one who truly understands her and the roots from which she has sprung is Reverend James Cleveland (Tituss Burgess), already successful before he became music director at her father’s Detroit church. He was dubbed “The King of Gospel,” just as Re later will be called “Queen of Soul.” Early on he tells the child, “Don’t let nothing come between you and your music. . . . Music will save your life.” How prophetic this will prove to be.
According to the film Re, barely surviving depression and drug addiction, decided to sing gospel after seeing a vision of her mother. Upon announcing her intention to record a Gospel album, Jerry Wexler at first opposed it, but she persists, the two reaching a compromise when she agrees to his proposal that a documentary be filmed of the recording session.
In a quiet scene in church talking with Cleveland, Re ,struggling with alcoholism, refers to it as her demon. She is haunted because her father had told her she did not walk in the Spirit. Cleveland assures her that God is indeed with her.
The film climax’s with the Amazing Grace recording session at L.A.’s Missionary Baptist Church with the accompaniment by the Southern California Community Choir directed by Cleveland. We are told, among other things, that this became the best-selling of all of Franklin’s many albums. And as we see by his presence, it also marks the reconciliation of the daughter with her father. As if “Amazing Grace,” were not enough, the film ends with a clip of Aretha Franklin herself singing one of her beloved songs. It might seem daring to place the real Aretha alongside Jennifer Hudson’s re-enactments, but the fact that Hudson’s singing has evoked so much praise, even from the critics who have savaged the film, is a tribute to the singer/actress’s performance.
The large cast is uniformly good, and the several re-enactments of her recording sessions or working out the details of a song (especially with her sisters and cousin who serve as her back-up singers) are especially so. Like the children of Israel marching to freedom, she begins to take charge as she finds her music in Soul and then in Gospel. As Cleveland had promised, music saves her life, enabling her to survive falling off the stage during one appearance while she was under the influence of alcohol.
There seems to be an agreement among a certain group of critics that the musical biography has run its course, that filmmakers either must come up with some form of film totally new or give up the filming of an icon’s life. I am glad that director Liesl Tommy does not go along with this draconian viewpoint, else we would not have this engrossing film. That is not to shield it from criticism for its flaws. It is true, as some have charged, that it does not delve deeply into Aretha Franklin’s inner life. I suspect only an Ingmar Bergan could do that, and even then it would require a much longer length, or the excision of many significant events in the singer’s life. My wish is that the film could have been made as a six to ten-part cable miniseries, thus allowing both an exploration of her inner struggles and the details of her social activism that are merely high-lighted in the film. We do get to see her asking Dr. King for a more active part in his campaigns, but it would make that scene in which he presented her with the SCLC Drum Beat Award for Musicians more significant if we had been shown scenes of why she deserved it. And it would also have made clearer to us why she grieved so much when news of his murder reached her. Also, why was she so impressed with the woman so vilified by the FBI, Angela Davis? This is little more than alluded to in the film. Unless viewers know something of Ms. Davis, the Black Panthers, and the radical underground resistance to the Vietnam War and racism, they will not appreciate the courage her public backing of Davis required!
We do, however, see why her rendition of Otis Redding song “Respect” became such an inspiring anthem for the Women’s Rights Movement. She took Redding’s song about the insistence of a hard-working man’s desire to be respected by the woman he loved and switched genders, her version insisting that the homemaker also deserves respect, as we see in the chorus, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T/Find out what it means to me/ R-E-S-P-E-C-T/ Take care, TCB.” Her back-up singers add a note of whimsy as they repeat “Sock it to me.” The scene of Franklin’s live performance of the song at Madison Square Garden is one of many highlights of the film.
And so, against the many who have disrespected this film, I urge you to see it and take its message(s) to heart. One critic wrote that it will soon be forgotten. Maybe so for him, but not for me. It is one I want to see again as soon as it comes out on DVD or streaming video. It is a good film to discuss the intersection of celebrityhood and social justice, of how a person and music can enhance the struggle for freedom—and, of course, for respect.
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