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New biopic and box set salute the Queen of Soul

Held back from release until COVID restrictions subsided, Aretha Franklin's 145-minute biopic "Respect" at last is in the theaters. A four-CD box, "Aretha Franklin" (Rhino), too, was held up until it could be released simultaneously with the film.

By Bruce Sylvester

Memphis-born and Detroit-bred, Aretha Louise Franklin (1942-2018) was the undisputed Queen of Soul. She was also the voice of Everywoman, simply asking for a little respect and a do-right-man to make her feel like a natural woman. Held back from release until COVID restrictions subsided, her 145-minute biopic Respect at last is in the theaters. A four-CD box, Aretha Franklin (Rhino), too, was held up until it could be released simultaneously with the film.

Late in life, Lady Soul handpicked Jennifer Hudson to play her as an adult, while young Skye Dakota Turner is commendably understated in South Africa-born director Liesl Tommy'a debut full-length feature. The focus is on Aretha's personal relationships, her music, and her career up to 1972's live recording of Amazing Grace – her best-selling LP and reportedly the gospel world's best-selling album of all time.

Her childhood was filled with love and support but dark elements lurked. Her talents were recognized early on by her father (renowned preacher C.L. Franklin, dubbed “the man with the million-dollar voice”) and her parents' inner circle. Her father's services gave his flock emotional release, which she'd do too with her records. She was advised, “Music will save your life.” How true. Gospel singer Clara Ward (her father's companion and able assistant) became a surrogate mother. Mary J. Blige probably had a blast in a few scenes as tempestuous Dinah Washington.

A few elements of her life are treated gingerly, so people might want to read up on her a bit before seeing the film. Although less than her first husband, Ted White, her father comes across as something of a Svengali, but in all fairness, she was so young (18) when she got a contract with Columbia that she may have needed his guidance based on experience.

At home, Aretha, her first two sons, and her sisters Carolyn and Erma sing “Respect” for goofy fun, with Aretha (the ambitious sister) pretending a wooden spoon is a microphone. Re the “re re re re” bridge they add to writer Otis Redding's original version, re is both the title's first syllable and Aretha's nickname in her inner circle. In those years, she had the power to make any song her own.

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Our first encounter with the 81-track box Aretha Franklin is, of course, the cover – the most imaginative box cover I've seen in quite a while. Does its artist Makeba Rainey's name derive from earlier Black vocalists Miriam Makeba and Ma Rainey?

The well-annotated collection isn't a simple greatest-hits package. It goes out of its way to provide obscurities that serious Aretha fans may not already have: demos, alternate takes, work tapes, live numbers, her UK single cover of The Stones' “Satisfaction.” It opens with her first releases – two gospel songs recorded in 1956 at age 14 in her father's New Bethel Baptist Church and released on nearby J-V-B and then, a year later, on Chess Records' subsidiary Checker. Legendary talent scout John Hammond brought her to Columbia for nine well-produced jazz/pop LPs with no great sales. The box provides 10 of their tracks. The last, “Won't Be Long,” shows the powerful contralto she'd soon unleash when she signed with Atlantic. (Two-CD 40-song The Queen in Waiting on Legacy proves her Columbia sides' sophistication.) Next come two previously unreleased numbers she taped at home: “Try a Little Tenderness” and, from her own pen, her homage “My Kind of Town (Detroit Is).”

Naturally, there are her breakthrough hits”I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)” and “Respect” followed by her mono cover of friend Sam Cooke's “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which producer Jerry Wexler knew to give a discreet arrangement to heighten the lyrics' impact. Her gospel-grounded piano more or less led the rhythm sections.

Disc 2's obscurities include a seven-minute live “Dr. Feelgood” where her audience's shouts show they're sharing the ecstasy. Originally broadcast in 1970 on This Is Tom Jones, duet “It's Not Unusual/See-Saw” combines two of their hits. The box's sole Amazing Grace track (actually a single edit) is Clara Ward's composition “How I Got Over.” (Wikipedia's entry on the song gives Clara's sister Willa's account of the song's appalling inspiration.) Side 3 closes with a later “Amazing Grace” from a BBC program.

We hear her shift over the years from her deep, gutsy contralto to her upper range as her sound softens and disco enters the scene. Duet partners include Smokey Robinson, Lou Rawls, Eurythmics, and George Michael. Mavis Staples joins her on “Oh Happy Day” at the New Bethel Baptist Church. Ray Charles (who, like Mavis and Aretha, moved Black gospel styles into other realms) shares “Spirit in the Dark.”

The box's notes mention her eventually revealing that The Temptations' Dennis Edwards inspired her to write “Day Dreaming.” Some of the 52-page booklet's abundant photos come from album cover shoots.

She remained iconic to the end. Classical “Nessun Dorma” was her emergency fill-in for Lucian Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammy ceremony. The box's next-to-last track, “My Country Tis of Thee,” is from Barack Obama's 2009 inaugural. Then comes the box's finale, previously unissued “(You Make Me Feel like) A Natural Woman” broadcast from The Kennedy Center in 2015. The Queen of Soul could sing for our president and at the same time voice the heart of Everywoman.