Respect an Uneven Look at Aretha Franklin


RESPECT (2021)

Directed by Liesl Tommy

United Artists, 145 minutes, PG-13





In 2009, an African American student in my class at Smith College asked me who sang “My Country t’is of Thee” at Barack Obama’s inauguration. It took me aback, but I had the presence of mind to ask her to YouTube more Aretha Franklin and read about her. Bless her heart, that’s exactly what she did and the “Queen of Soul” had a new young fan.


I tell this story because Respect is a bit like Franklin at Obama’s inauguration: a taste for those who know little about her. It won’t, however, tell them much. It lost money at the box office, but racism was not to blame. Like too many biopics in the “based upon” category, Respect tried to do too much, assumed too much, and relied too heavily on name recognition. It’s a decent movie, but ultimately a mid-pack pick.


The mature Aretha was played by Jennifer Hudson, Franklin’s own choice. As we see in the clip as the credits roll, she’s no Aretha, but who is? Hudson is about as close as it gets and deserves any kudos that come her way. The problem lies with Tracey Scott Wilson’s screenplay, which follows Franklin from 1952-72, when she recorded her best-selling record, the gospel album Amazing Grace. Twenty years isn’t a bad sweep for a biopic, but unless you know about Franklin’s life (or read up in advance), you’ll be lost in a welter of important-but-unexplained characters. For instance, at one point in the film a distraught Aretha calls upon her friend Sam.” That would be Sam Cooke (Kelvin Hair), who practically invented soul. Nor will you understand that when Aretha made Amazing Grace, “James” (Tituss Burgess) the minister comforting and accompanying her was James Cleveland, known as the “King of Gospel for reinventing the genre.


Respect is an odd film in several ways. There’s a lot about the dynamics between Aretha and her overbearing father, C. L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), but it would have helped to state what is implied: that the Rev. Franklin was better at preaching than following the gospel. When we see Aretha pregnant at 12—and not by the man implied in the film–she was following C. L.’s footsteps; he impregnated at 12-year-old himself, plus two more before he married Barbara Siggers (Audra McDonald in a cameo), Aretha’s mother. On the positive side, the Rev. Franklin was an early civil rights activist, which is why famous people like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Gilbert Glenn Brown) hung out at C. L.’s Detroit home.


And so it goes. We get wonderful performances from Hudson, the woefully underrated Whitaker, Marlon Wayans as Franklin’s abusive first husband Ted White, Saycon Sengbloh and Hailey Kilgore as Aretha’s sisters Emma and Carolyn, Mary J. Blige as the tempestuous Dinah Washington who loves Aretha but doesn’t want her stepping on her turf, and Marc Maron as the manic music producer Jerry Wexler who made Franklin into a star.  


The last point is crucial. Aside from C. L., Wexler, and White, most of the rest of the people are there because they were in Aretha’s orbit. Alas, they are more like wallpaper than foundations. Director Lisel Tommy too often allows her film to become an African-American version of A Star is Born. Yet, she is uncertain whether she is making a film for the cognoscenti or the newbies. The first, of course, already know Aretha was the Queen of Soul; the second–the bulk of ticket-buyers these days–don’t get enough information to know much more than Aretha switched from a small market gospel singer to a chartbuster when Wexler sent her to Muscle Shoals to record with a bunch of White backcountry good ole boys. (They were far more than that!)  Add lots of music–superbly done by Ms. Hudson–and we get a very long film that’s also part musical documentary.


Put another way, Respect is a trifurcated film, part psychological drama, part Star is Born, and part cover album. It’s too bad, because the acting is really topnotch. Forest Whitaker should have gotten a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod and Hudson should be singing the film’s title song, but Respect will be absent from the Oscars. Mid-pack films don’t generally get a lot of love when it comes to major awards. You can give it some, but educate yourself in advance.


Rob Weir



Hue and Cry at the Clark: What is Art?





Clark Art Institute

Williamstown, MA

Through March 6

{Click on any image for bigger size/better color} 


The venerable Clark is far better known for its collection of iconic paintings than for printmaking, but Hue and Cry might make you reconsider your preconception. While you’re at it, rethink how you consider posters and other (potentially) reproducible works. These are so much part of both the consumer and art worlds of today that many people don’t know that there was once fierce debate over whether they were “art” at all.


Most of us have gotten past snobbish debates over taste, but the exhibit at the Clark does two things: It reminds us that the very use of color was once a battleground and it shows that printmaking is more complex than most of us imagine. The Clark show focuses on the French Belle Époque (1890s), though it also explores earlier printmaking as it developed following the French Revolution. A few terms are useful. Relief is perhaps the best known. Anything can be used, but wood is commonplace. An image is carved onto the wood, inked, and printed. Intaglio (including etchings, engravings, and mezzotints) starts with a plate of some sort (often metal) and the image is scored. The ink is applied and the plate transferred to a press. How the ink is applied leads to a whole bunch of other designations but I’ll spare you those except for the marvelous A la poupée, which means that the various colors are meticulously daubed onto the plate with wads. Various types of planographic images, which use prepared surfaces (like stone, which is a lithograph) and a clever process in which the image is made with something greasy (special pencil, crayon, etc.) and chemically sealed. The ink adheres to the surfaces, but not the grease. 






Here are some images from the show. One of the earliest is Philibert Louis Debucourt’s Dance Mania (1809) from the Napoleonic Era that parodies upper crust culture. It’s made by the poupée process discussed above. It might not fit your view of art, but it’s a great satire and reminiscent of the sort of cartoon England’s William Hogarth did a century earlier but made into prints. Printmaking got more serious when Impressionists such as Camille Pissarro got into the act. It’s not the most stunning image in the show, but there’s a small crayon sketch of his Peasant Women Weeding the Grass (1894) with his instructions of how to apply colors. 




If a name pops out more than any other it that of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. He perfectly captured the Belle Époque in all of its energy, cultural rebellion, and decadence. Among my favorites are Box in the Grand Tier (1897) and The Englishman at the Moulin Rouge (1892). If you’re wondering why said Englishman is in grey, it’s because he’s trying to pick up one or both of the actresses in the assumption that they were also prostitutes. (He probably wasn’t wrong!) Critics wondered why some of Lautrec's reds were so lurid and why his perspectives were skewed. Note how he used furniture as framing devices. But what really set their teeth on edge is what we see in the billboard below and the poster for Vin Mariani: Lautrec was unabashedly commercial in many of his commissions. This shocked those who felt that art should somehow be above crass things. 




That’s as if artists weren’t flogging their wares in other ways. Paul Cézanne reproduced his famed The Bathers (1897) in lithographs for mass consumption and again invited debate over whether it was actually “art.” One wonders what they made of Émile Bernard, who rendered his Saint Mary Mother of God with a Lily (1895) as if it were something from the Middle Ages. 




And then there were Les Nabis, who sought to move beyond Impressionism, which was by then old hat. They were something of a bridge between the Impressionists and the Modernists, as we see in these image from Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. Whether or not you like Bonnard’s Little Laundress (1896), his minimalist approach tells you all you need to know about the scene. It’s intriguing to think that Picasso was 15 when Bonnard’s images were en vogue, so you can imagine what next loomed on the horizon. And, of course, critics weren’t immediately impressed. Tell that to the collector who recently paid $106.5 million for one of Pablo’s works! 




Rob Weir


Jack Barksdale February Artist of the Month


Jack Barksdale

Death of a Hummingbird



Your first impression of Death of a Hummingbird might be that the vocals sound very young. You’re right, but you might want to cut some slack; Jack Barksdale is young–as in all of 14 now and just 13 when he made this record. Now listen to the instrumentals and you’ll wonder who the older dude is playing in the background. That’s also Barksdale. Now you’ll wonder how in the blazes a kid that young has fingers that old. Yep, this youngster from Fort Worth, Texas, is the proverbial child prodigy–and an enigmatic one at that.


One of the great debates about human beings is whether we are products of nature or nurture. Insofar as Barksdale is concerned, he’s almost entirely a force of nature. His father Brent says he can’t sing a note, has never played an instrument, and listened to a lot of Nirvana and Leonard Cohen when Jack was even younger–not exactly fodder for a repertoire that leans heavily upon blues and country with a just a tiny bit of Cohen around the edges. His mother Clara may have influenced him some by playing Nancy Griffith and Lucinda Williams records, but neither she nor Brent had the slightest idea until several years later that Jack had been writing original songs since he was seven. Ask Jack and he’ll tell you that his influences (besides Cohen) were Johnny Cash, Guy Clark, Lead Belly, Willie Nelson, and Townes Van Zandt. And he’s not just name-dropping. 



It's weird enough hearing blues from a pre-pubescent voice, or see Barksdale sharing stage swith grizzled vets, but it’s stunning to hear him go down the fretboard on guitar (acoustic, electric, slide), ukulele, and mandolin; blow out soulful notes on the harmonica; and tickle the old (non-) ivories on keyboards. Plus, I don’t know about you, but when I was 13, I would have had a lot of trouble fitting phrases like “translucently moving through time,” “blinded by the clouds,” “keep the spider fed,” “gypsy day dreams,” or “raindrops soaking my moral stances” into any kind of intelligible sentence, let alone fitting them into a song. And I’m 100% certain I couldn’t have written a song about young love like “Death of a Hummingbird.” (At 13, I wasn’t even looking for it!)


I’ll confess that I’m not a big fan of kids’ voices but man, can this youngster play! I can already imagine him a few years from now singing in deeper tones, and it’s almost scary to consider how much better he’ll be as an instrumentalist. “Sideways” feels like a novelty song at present. Now picture it with a voice that can add some spit and gravel and it becomes a Barksdale staple for years to come. He also delves into spooky gospel-influenced blues (“Revival Song No. 3”), sizzles the strings on “Bugle Boy Blues,” and I can only wonder where he came up with blues like “World Full of Nothing” and “Man in the Ground” My cowboy hat’s off to Barksdale for even having the guts to put blues like those on an album. I mean, sheesh, he’s not old enough to have that many blues.


Here he is on slide. Wait until he grow into those cowboy boots!  


 Rob Weir