Monday, October 4, 2021

Respect: Jennifer Hudson, in Fragments; with an Afterword about Dear Evan Hansen

Jennifer Hudson in Respect.

Jennifer Hudson is probably giving a truly great performance as Aretha Franklin in Respect, but the movie is so badly written and so wretchedly cut together that you get it only in bits and pieces. Hudson is ideally cast, and she has the character down: the alternating currents of sassiness and fierceness; the transported Baptist fervor and the clotheshorse flamboyance; the witty, plain-spoken common-sense core and the distant, untouchable edges; the ego and the warmth; the moments where her focus is almost frighteningly precise and intense, as if she were piercing down a steel door with a laser gaze. It’s all there, yet the movie almost never pauses long enough for a scene with any substance, so it’s as if were watching two and a half hours of trailers. The performance only settles in when Hudson sings – gloriously – and even then, maybe half the time, Liesl Tommy, a stage director who has done some TV but whose first feature this is, cuts away in the middle of her numbers. She has Jennifer Hudson singing Aretha Franklin’s ethereal songbook and she thinks there’s something else we’d rather watch?

Likely the fault in the shaping of the picture doesn’t lie with the editor, Avril Beukes, but with Tommy, whose staging is even clumsier than her camerawork, and the screenwriter, Tracey Scott Wilson. Wilson often doesn’t bother to introduce characters – even some important ones, like Franklin’s last partner, her road manager Ken Cunningham (Albert Jones), or Clara Ward (Heather Headley), the gospel singer who lives with her father, C.J. Franklin (Forest Whitaker). Entire plotlines are left undeveloped or semi-developed. I understand why the film doesn’t disclose the identity of the father of Aretha’s two eldest children (or identities), which was a matter of speculation for many years, but there are ways to dramatize a mystery; Wilson and Tommy hint at a first seducer and a resulting pregnancy, but then suddenly she has a second kid and it feels like a couple of scenes have been snipped out of the print. Mary J. Blige has a scene as Dinah Washington that makes no sense:  when Aretha, just starting out, strikes up one of her songs at a club, presumably as a tribute to Washington in the audience, the fabled jazz singer hurls an object at her and then comes to see her backstage to offer advice on her career. In one scene we see Aretha alone, sipping a glass of white wine; a few minutes later she shows up for a concert stumbling drunk and falls over, and Ken, cradling her, murmurs that he can’t do this anymore. We all know that Franklin struggled with alcohol, but it’s the filmmakers’ job to dramatize that struggle. The scene where she passes out in front of a live audience is so generic that I replayed in my head the much better versions from other rock bios and bios à clef like Walk the Line and The Rose.

Ted White (Marlon Wayans), Franklin’s first husband, is generic too. A handsome narcissist who turns out to be a jealous brute, his entire character feels like a stock-company version of Laurence Fishburne as Ike Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It. The filmmakers can’t even work up a respectable load of melodrama around this bad-news dude. He gets into a jealous fight with one of the musicians while Aretha is recording I Never Loved a Man the Way That I Loved You at the studio in Muscle Shoals; he slaps his wife around; but then he fades in the background, appearing only in occasional brooding close-ups. Later, out of the blue a reporter asks her if it’s true that Ted beat her up in the lobby of a hotel and the movie inserts a flashback to explain the reference. (Tommy is particularly clumsy at staging violence.) When Franklin finally walks out on him and he protests, claiming credit for half of her hits including “I Never Loved a Man,” she throws it in his face that she had to rewrite the song to rescue it, and that the lyric was all about him, the cheater and heartbreaker she couldn’t get herself to fall out of love with. It would have been nice if we’d heard before this that White was taking credit for her songs. (The listed songwriter for “I Never Loved a Man” is actually Ronnie Shannon.)

As Franklin’s sinister, tyrannical father, Whitaker makes a strong impression in a couple of scenes; the best is a drunken rant at the dinner table with his family in the aftermath of the assassination of his friend and fellow minister Martin Luther King (Gilbert Glenn Brown, who makes zero impression). It would have been nice to see a little more of Audra McDonald as her mother, who dies about five minutes after her marriage to C.J. falls apart (when Aretha is ten and played by the child actress Skye Dakota Turner) and only returns as a ghost to console her tormented, grown-up daughter. (Callie Khouri, who co-wrote the story, must have interpolated the hovering-dead-mama idea from her TV series Nashville, where Connie Britton’s long-deceased mother shows up to escort her into the afterlife.) It’s not a catastrophe that Wilson omitted Aretha’s second marriage, to the actor Glenn Turman, but we never get to know the other members of the family, and her children are little more than extras. The likable character actor Tate Donovan is wasted as John Hammond, the legendary record producer who discovered Franklin but couldn’t get any hit albums out of her – because, according to the movie, C.J. insisted on dominating her choice of songs. Comic Marc Maron has more to do as Jerry Wexler, who makes her a star, and Maron is lively and diverting even if his performance is more of an impersonation.  Any actor in this picture who manages to hold your attention during the unfocused whirl of characters and incidents deserves kudos.

Wilson inserts a couple of scenes where we see how one of Franklin’s classic recordings is assembled; these are very enjoyable, and the movie slows down for them. But it’s baffling that Tommy doesn’t always show the good sense to take us all the way through Hudson’s renditions of the songs. Respect is far from the only recent musical bio or backstage musical to make this error, but it strikes me as an egregious one. When we do get a number in its entirety, the results are deeply satisfying because Jennifer Hudson is thrilling. What wouldn’t one give to see the performance she gave on the set before it was hacked up in the editing room?

Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen.

It’s amazing that, after Dear Evan Hansen made such a splash on Broadway, won the Tony Award and developed almost a cult following among young audiences, no one has been showing up to the new movie version. The day I saw it I was the only person in the theatre, and even given the drastically reduced movie attendance in these extended Covid days, that seems startling. It’s a terrible movie, but audiences couldn’t have known that before it opened – though admittedly those trailers were ominous. There is, of course, a long list of bad but highly praised Broadway plays every one of whose blemishes the camera has cruelly exposed, but Dear Evan Hansen – written by Steven Levenson, with songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul – isn’t a worse movie musical than The Phantom of the Opera or Rent or Les Misérables.

The material is an icky lump of masochism and uplift about an anxiety-crippled teenager, the title character. He becomes a source of hope for the family of a suicide, one of Evan’s classmates, who, for complicated reasons, they mistakenly believe was the dead boy’s (only) true friend. Not up to disabusing them, he keeps up the ruse, which requires a great deal of invention. To say the plot is implausible doesn’t begin to express it. As a friend of mine put it, this kid, who is too terrified to have a conversation with the pizza delivery guy, puts over a scam that would have challenged The Music Man’s Harold Hill. On stage the show was rescued by the score and by Ben Platt as Evan. But Platt’s performance, a series of arias built on the character’s tics and fumbles and wipeouts, doesn’t work at all on screen. Perhaps his efforts to take it down for the camera cancelled it out; perhaps he’s just played it too many times. And though he could pull off an adolescent role at twenty-two, he’s now twenty-seven and looks it. The director, Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), doesn’t get how musicals work – the rhythms are all off. I gave up on the picture after about forty minutes, in the middle of a song-and-dance duet (choreographed by Jamaica Craft) between Platt and Colton Ryan as the dead boy that was so embarrassing I couldn’t keep watching the screen. But I left as quietly as possible, reluctant to disturb the invisible audience for whom the movie was being projected in the middle of a Sunday afternoon.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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