M (145 minutes), in cinemas
Before being cast as Aretha Franklin in this biopic, Jennifer Hudson was endorsed for the role by the most discerning of critics, Franklin herself.
And there’s no doubt that she possesses the range, volume and chutzpah for it. The film soars whenever the music takes over, as it does for large chunks of the action. But the backstage story is less exhilarating. Franklin had a life as big as her personality.
Her career as a performer was augmented by her support of the civil rights movement – she was a friend to Martin Luther King and a defender of Angela Davis – and her childhood as the daughter of a prominent Baptist preacher with well-cultivated connections in the intersecting circles of jazz, soul and gospel music meant that she grew up knowing all the big names.
All those details are here but somehow they have been stripped down to form a standard showbiz obstacle course – a difficult childhood, a struggle to the top, an even tougher struggle to stay there and finally, success. And at each step of the way, her progress is impeded by another exploitative or abusive man.
Her mother, Barbara (Audra McDonald), whom she loves very much, lays out the film’s theme when she tells the young Aretha that her musical gifts are her own and she must never let them be controlled by anyone else. It’s clear that she’s talking about her estranged husband, C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), Aretha’s father. His daughter is not yet 10 and he’s already calling on her to sing at his Saturday night parties for a guest list that includes Dinah Washington and Sam Cooke.
Director Liesl Tommy and writer Tracey Scott Wilson produce a forthright account of her rape during one of these Saturday nights and her pregnancy at the age of 12. Nor does it underplay her reliance on alcohol later in life and the violence and psychological manipulation which plagued her first marriage to Ted White (Marlon Wayans) and her longstanding relationship with her manager, Ken Cunningham (Albert Jones).