Review by Rich Cline | 4/5

dir Liesl Tommy
scr Tracey Scott Wilson
prd Scott Bernstein, Jonathan Glickman, Harvey Mason Jr, Stacey Sher
with Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Tituss Burgess, Audra McDonald, Marc Maron, Heather Headley, Kimberly Scott, Albert Jones, Hailey Kilgore, Saycon Sengbloh, Skye Dakota Turner, Tate Donovan, Mary J Blige
release US 13.Aug.21,
UK 10.Sep.21
21/US MGM 2h25

whitaker wayans mcdonald
See also:
Amazing Grace (2018)

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hudson, kilgore, sengbloh, maron and friends
The great Aretha Franklin deserves a biopic this epic scale, packed with extended musical sequences and excellent performances. At the centre of this one, Jennifer Hudson transforms herself so honestly, and without gimmickry, that it's often breathtaking. That said, the film itself feels a bit by the books, dealing with the usual demons without much probing. Some more artistic licence might have given it an extra kick.
As a young child, Aretha (Turner) is already belting out gospel and soul to the delight of her pastor father CL (Whitaker) and his congregation. And as a teen (now Hudson), she begins to pursue a recording career, guided by the controlling CL. Flexing her independence, she runs off with manager Ted (Wayans), who lets her find her own voice and popular success. But he's just as abusive as her dad, and she turns to the bottle, alienating everyone except tour manager Ken (Jones), before finding her way back to the church, where she started.
Culminating with the 1972 recording of Amazing Grace, the film covers 20 years in Aretha's life, including key relationships both personal and professional, while leaving most abusive situations off-screen. Through it all, the women in her life remain constant, with her faithful grandmother (Scott), musician sisters (Kilgore and Sengbloh), unofficial stepmother Clara (Headley) and memories of her late mother (McDonald). By contrast, most of the men are deeply toxic in one way or another. They're never able to crush her spirit, but they get close.

Hudson is simply astonishing in the role, changing her entire physicality, including the way she sings. But this isn't an impersonation: she becomes Aretha, channelling that internal fire, especially in scenes where she directs musicians to produce her iconic hits. The songs become an integral part of the story, from the lively interaction of this musical family to the powerful on-stage sequences. And the entire cast just about keeps up with Hudson, offering sometimes intense insight into her story.

The script peppers scenes with references to other aspects of Aretha's life, including her political activism. But the film never quite grapples with what drove her to achieve so much on so many different fronts, especially with odds stacked against her. This oddly leaves her troubled past, tumultuous relationships and substance abuse feeling almost like set dressing. But Hudson lets us see the hunger in Aretha's eyes, including the perfectionism and a spiritual yearning that's in between the lines.

cert 12 themes, language, violence 31.Aug.21

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© 2021 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall