Music That You Can Dance To (And Music That You Can't)
No-one would dispute that a performer with the talent and achievements of Aretha Franklin is a worthy candidate for the full bio-pic treatment; whether Liesl Tommy's Respect is the bio-pic she deserves is another matter.
Jennifer Hudson plays Aretha between the ages of 18 and 30 (which is the period of the singer's life covered by the film; Hudson herself is rather older), while a suitably able child actress covers the earlier years – the standard structure of this kind of film has become rather codified over the years and Respect makes few deviations from it. We witness a few key moments from Aretha's youth, see her struggling to make her breakthrough and achieve significant success, observe the beginnings of a possibly-unwise relationship with the man who is also her manager (Marlon Wayans plays this role), and finally glimpse fame and fortune starting to arrive. The genesis of her most famous song is delved into in some detail. Then there comes the downside of being a hugely successful celebrity, personal demons showing up, a dreadful wobble, and then finally a triumphant bouncing-back just in time for the concluding captions outlining what happened in the years after the time covered by the film.
It's a much-used structure and on this occasion it produces a watchable and informative film (especially if, like me, you enjoy listening to Franklin's recordings but never knew that much about her apart from her aviophobia – which, by the way, is not mentioned in the movie). But it's not entirely clear why the film has been assembled in quite this way – did Aretha really not do anything notable in the last 46 years of her life? It seems rather unlikely, given the hushed reverence with which she is treated throughout the film.
This is really a sort of problem with the movie – the sequences where Hudson is required to put across one of Franklin's vibrant, funky, soulful tunes are great fun, especially as Hudson has abandoned the attention-all-shipping vocal stylings which made Cats such an alarming experience. But the rest of the film is much more earnest and not nearly as entertaining. And Franklin's life story doesn't easily lend itself to an off-the-shelf treatment, which is what this basically is. The screenwriters clearly feel obliged to touch on some of the more problematic elements of her life – not the least of which being the fact she had two children by the age of fifteen, both fathered by someone she only identified in a letter found after her death – as well as the laudable stuff (Martin Luther King appears in the movie as an old friend and mentor of Franklin's). But to focus on either of these aspects would produce a film with a very different tone and focus, and so they are awkwardly shuffled off to the fringes, touched on only in passing.
The result is a film which either attempts to do too much, or not enough, depending on your perspective. As a generic musical bio-pic it's passable enough, as all the requisite plot beats have been identified and assembled in the proper fashion. But in terms of the actual life of Aretha Franklin, it's impossible to escape the impression that things have been sanitised and tidied up and shifted and tweaked in order to fit a template, to the point where the actual texture and substance of the subject's life has started to disappear. Watchable, but cautious to the point of almost seeming bland.
Cautious and bland are not words you could really use to describe the output of the French director Leos Carax, whose latest film Annette is currently doing the rounds of the UK's art house cinemas. The presence of big name stars like Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard might lead one to suspect that Carax has gone mainstream for this new project, but fear not: Driver plays Henry McHenry, a nihilistic stand-up comic who engages in a passionate romance with operatic soprano Anne (Cotillard). Soon a child is born, named Annette. But domestic happiness is threatening to undermine the edgy outlook which has made Henry McHenry so successful, and his career begins to stutter while Anne's goes from strength to strength. Tragedy eventually ensues, along with the revelation that baby Annette has a startling, almost magical gift that will change her life and those of the people around her forever…
The story sounds a bit unlikely, I will admit, but the soaring weirdness of Annette comes not from its plot, but from various other factors. The primary one is that this is a sung-through rock opera with all the songs written by Ron and Russell Mael (also known as the veteran art-pop band Sparks): the movie begins with Driver, Cotillard, the Maels, and the rest of the cast and crew marching out of the recording studio where the soundtrack is supposedly being laid down, singing a song about how the movie is starting (the audience are firmly requested to 'shut up and sit'). There are some immensely powerful songs here, most notably We Love Each Other So Much, which Driver and Cotillard perform in some rather eye-popping situations, but also a lot of weird stuff (an obstetrician and his chorus of midwives get a perky number about pushing and breathing).
But wait! We haven't even got to the fact that baby Annette is played by a marionette, which all the actors treat as if it were an actual infant. This seems a very self-consciously eccentric and pretentious thing to do, even in a Leos Carax rock opera written by Sparks, but it turns out to have been done for entirely sound metaphorical reasons. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Annette is that such a brazenly non-naturalistic and self-aware film still has moments which pack a significant emotional punch, thanks mainly to the Mael brothers' score and some very impressive performances from Driver, Cotillard and Simon Helberg.
To be honest, I was hoping to see a bit more of Ron and Russell in front of the cameras, but this is exactly as weird and memorable as you would hope a Sparks movie might be. The very definition of a niche, cult movie – or so I would predict – and one quite unlike anything else that's been in cinemas for a long time. Certainly not for everyone, but if you get yourself in synch with the peculiar reality of Annette a rewarding time is likely to result.