Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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ARETHA FRANKLIN: THE QUEEN OF SOUL (1991)

****

With Aretha Franklin, Jerry Wexler, and others.
Directed by Cathe Neukem.
(A*Vision Entertainment, color, 60 mins.).

By Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell

It's the rare rock-doc that gets over on its interviews--at best they contextualize the performances rather than chasing you to the kitchen. But the narrative thread of The Queen of Soul isn't there to stitch the music together. This is a genuine biography, and while it attempts no investigative in-your-face, it tells the truth.

Franklin clearly cooperated, and she gabs plenty. If you ever suspected the real Aretha was the hash-slinging mama of The Blues Brothers, her lush, regal, ever so slightly pompous presence here means to set you straight. But she's not the only witness, and subtly, respectfully, the private passions of this unknowable public person are limned for those with eyes to see.

We glimpse her intense relationship with the Reverend C.L. Franklin, the powerful Baptist preacher whose secular connections thrust his daughter into show business when she was still a teenager. We hear John Hammond, who signed her to Columbia, refer delicately but tellingly to her "terrible luck with men," and learn how low she got in her bad times. But we're also treated to realistic appraisals of her meagerly publicized commitment to the civil rights movement, and to well-earned, well-articulated accounts of her musical genius.

From Keith Richards to Atlantic Records' Jerry Wexler, from Dick Gregory to Detroit City Council President Erma Henderson, there are no stupid people in this video (unless George Michael counts). Editor Jody Sheff has shaped the talk elegantly and decisively--the story doesn't just makes sense, it moves like a piece of music. Our only complaint is that the performance clips aren't long enough. From the look of them, there's great vintage footage available, and somebody should compile a rock-doc out of it.

Video Review, July 1991