That changes when she signs with Atlantic Records and joins forces with the legendary producer Jerry Wexler—a terrific Marc Maron—who in 1966 sends her to record with a scrappy but first-rate band in Muscle Shoals, Ala. Respect surges to life in these sequences: It's a thrill to watch the often soft-spoken, deferential Aretha seize control of her recording sessions, tweaking the arrangement on her first big hit, "I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)," and building a strong rapport with her collaborators. We recognize her brilliance as not just a singer but also an impromptu songwriter.
By the time Aretha is singing immortal tunes like "(You Make Me Feel like a) Natural Woman," she's also mustered the courage to leave her abusive husband. From there, the movie becomes more uneven and overwrought, as Aretha's alcoholism threatens to torpedo her career and family life.
Some of these scenes feel rushed, and they expose other cracks in the storytelling: We spend a lot of time with Aretha's sisters, both also singers, but her four sons are only partly glimpsed. The movie is also vague in its sense of Aretha as a political figure, apart from brief scenes in which we see her singing at the funeral of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and defending Angela Davis after her arrest.
The road is bumpy, but the film's final destination is moving. Respect climaxes with perhaps Franklin's finest achievement, her landmark 1972 album, Amazing Grace, presented here as not just her return to her gospel roots but also her recommitment to God. It's a lovely sequence that made me want to revisit the electrifying documentary Amazing Grace, which was filmed during those recording sessions, and which is easily the greatest Aretha Franklin movie ever. As even decent musical biopics remind us, there ain't nothing like the real thing.
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