Striking an Inspiring Chord
Becoming ourselves is often a challenging process. We may have difficulty feeling our way through a cloudy morass of ideas and suggestions, and we might be unsure how to separate the good from the bad. This can be particularly daunting when we’re young, bombarded by others who think they know what’s best for us, leading to confusion and uncertainty that carries on into adulthood. So how we sort this out? It certainly helps to have inspiring examples to show us the way to find our true selves, as seen in the uplifting new biopic, “Respect” (web site, trailer).
When telling the life story of an iconic and complicated figure like soul singer Aretha Franklin (1942-2018) (Jennifer Hudson), it can be difficult to get everything right. Decisions regarding what should and shouldn’t be included in such a film can be fraught with difficult choices, some of which will undoubtedly disappoint while others will be perfectly spot-on. And considerations like these almost assuredly had to have gone into the process of devising the narrative and screenplay for the biopic of this storied entertainer and activist, the result of which has drawn decidedly mixed reactions from viewers and critics. For my money, however, director Liesl Tommy’s debut feature mostly gets it right.
“Respect” focuses on a 20-year period in Franklin’s life, from her upbringing in 1952 as a prodigious young gospel singer in the Detroit Baptist church where her supportive but somewhat overbearing father, Rev. C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), served as pastor, through her rise to international stardom as a recording artist and concert performer, to the 1972 making of a gospel album, Amazing Grace, a risky venture that marked a return to her roots and became one of the all-time best-selling LPs in this musical genre. It’s a story arc that essentially goes full circle, examining some of the most crucial events in her career and in her life and showing how the Queen of Soul came to find her voice as a performer, as a civil rights advocate, and, perhaps most importantly, as an individual.
The story opens with a young Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner) impressively belting out a musical number at one of the many house parties hosted by her father, gatherings that featured eclectic mixes of family members, church parishioners, and rising and established entertainers, such as the young artist’s idol, Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige). However, even though these soirees were held in the home of a pastor, they weren’t always wholesome, innocent affairs, as young Aretha found out when she was sexually abused and became pregnant at age 12 and again two years later, incidents that produced two sons – and that she rarely spoke about throughout the rest of her life.
During her childhood, Aretha often took comfort from her circumstances in the company of her mother, Barbara (Audra McDonald), who had divorced from Aretha’s father. Such solace was missing when she needed it most, however, due to Barbara’s death just before Aretha’s tenth birthday. Most motherly duties subsequently fell to Aretha’s grandmother, Rachel (Kimberly Scott), a protective, no-nonsense guardian who often intervened on her granddaughter’s behalf.
In the years that followed, Aretha took to music as a means to overcome the grief from losing her mother, learning how to play piano and singing gospel in her father’s church. Her powerful voice and charismatic presence made her a sensation while in her teens, eventually helping her land a recording contract with Columbia Records in 1960. With the managerial assistance of her father and the robust backing of record producer John Hammond (Tate Donovan), Aretha appeared to be on her way.
However, after a string of less than successful efforts over the course of six years, Aretha’s career failed to take off. In large part this was due to poor material choices – many of which were made by her father – as well as overproduced accompaniment that often overshadowed the power of Aretha’s voice, inhibiting her natural musicality from shining through. She sounded more like an easy listening artist than the musical powerhouse she was capable of being. So, when her Columbia contract expired, it was time to make a change.
In 1966, producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron) convinced Aretha to sign with Atlantic Records. Wexler wanted to tap into Aretha’s gospel roots and bring them out in her music, something that Hammond and Columbia failed to do. He was also willing to give her considerable leeway in forging her own sound, something her now-manager and husband Ted White (Marlon Wayans) was encouraging her to do. It proved to be just what Aretha needed to jump-start her career, launching her into a period in which she had a string of hits, including “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You),” “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” and, of course, her signature piece, “Respect,” an Otis Redding song she reworked and made her own. She appeared to have found her voice at last.
Throughout this period, Aretha exercised her voice in other ways, too, becoming an ardent supporter of the civil rights and women’s rights movements. She frequently lent her time and support to these efforts and became fast friends with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Gilbert Glenn Brown), a longtime family acquaintance. Sadly, she would also later sing at the civil rights leader’s funeral after his 1968 assassination. But, during this time, she earned considerable recognition for her efforts in these areas. In fact, her hit “Respect” even became a rollicking de facto anthem for these emerging social movements.
However, just as Aretha’s career began to soar, she also began experiencing a number of problems in her personal life. Her marriage to Ted was in serious trouble; he was physically abusive, and his frequent managerial and creative differences with Aretha’s father and with her producer caused difficulties in keeping her career focused and on track. Finally, by 1968, she had had enough, divorcing him the following year.
Nevertheless, the stress of years of various issues was beginning to take its toll. Aretha began having problems with alcohol abuse, seriously affecting her in multiple ways. She had loving support from many people, including Ken Cunningham (Albert Jones), her partner and road manager at the time, Rev. James Cleveland (Tituss Burgess), longtime friend and musical collaborator, and her siblings, Erma (Saycon Sengbloh), Carolyn (Hailey Kilgore) and Cecil (LeRoy McClain). But overcoming her condition ultimately took intervention from a higher power, a development that prompted the next step in Aretha’s evolution.
In 1972, Aretha undertook a project that Wexler was convinced was a big gamble. She wanted to return to her origins and record a gospel album, a venture that she believed she needed to do to heal herself. The album, recorded over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, featured Aretha with accompaniment by Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir. The event was also filmed as a documentary (though production problems delayed release of the film until 2018). Prior to the event’s staging, it was unclear how it would turn out. But, given that the stakes for Aretha were higher than any financial or artistic considerations, it was something she knew she needed to do. And, as things turned out, this was in many ways the crowning achievement in helping her at last find the voice that she had been looking for all these years.
For all practical purposes, the point of finding one’s voice is finding one’s true self. This may not be an easy process given everything that’s involved. We may not know what to look for. We may allow our search to become distracted by other diversions or distorted by the opinions of others. We may even deny to ourselves what we discover. In each of these cases, though, it all comes down to what we believe about ourselves. And, until we get a firm handle on that by recognizing and embracing the authenticity involved, we’ll find ourselves having to continue the search. But identifying and accepting those beliefs is crucial as they serve to shape our existence.
As the film shows, Aretha wrestled with this issue, especially during her upbringing and on into young adulthood. Many external forces, such as her domineering father, her abusive husband and record company executives, all thought they knew what was best for her, and she frequently willingly complied. The problem in that, however, is that Aretha never allowed herself to be herself. Consequently, this kept her from discovering who and what she was meant to be. In doing what she was told and what was expected of her, she never let her true self shine through.
This became acutely apparent during a nightclub performance when Aretha sought to sing a signature piece by her idol Dinah Washington, who was in attendance at the time. Much to Aretha’s surprise, Ms. Washington erupted in a fury; what Aretha thought was a kind tribute was seen by her mentor as a slap in the face. The incident led to a sternly worded conversation back stage in which Washington told Aretha that she needed to be herself, not shamelessly borrow from others, if she ever expected to be the sensation she was capable of becoming.
That exchange obviously had an impact, as Aretha began searching in earnest to find herself. It’s not that she didn’t know how; after all, her activism in the civil rights and women’s rights movements demonstrated that Aretha was perfectly capable of standing up for what she believed in. Now all she had to do was translate that ability into her music. And, before long, she did.
Aretha’s affiliation with Jerry Wexler helped immensely. His willingness to give Aretha the freedom to do what she wanted was tremendously liberating. She embraced it, and that became apparent in her work. It inspired her to believe in herself, providing her with the courage and confidence she needed to become herself, both as an artist and as an individual. In addition to recording music that suited her, this change enabled Aretha to make other alterations in her life, such as divorcing her abusive husband.
Aretha’s recordings soon became reflections of who she was. This is perhaps most obvious in the film’s title number. By learning how to tap into her own inner being, Aretha imbued herself with the respect – or, perhaps more precisely, self-respect – needed to succeed both in her calling and as a self-empowered individual. And, in doing so, she set an inspiring example for those facing similar circumstances, aiding them in becoming who they were meant to be as well.
This is not to suggest that Aretha did everything on her own. She had ample able assistance as well. For example, Wexler was nearly always in her corner, especially when he could see that she was receiving bad advice, particularly from her husband. She also had the support of session musicians from Muscle Shoals, as well as her sisters Erma and Carolyn. This is apparent in scenes showing how several of Aretha’s songs came together, most notably the collaboration between her and her siblings in bringing “Respect” to life. These acts of co-creation not only show what can result from these kinds of joint efforts, but they also illustrate how the whole can indeed become more than the sum of its parts.
By taking the steps that she did, Aretha lived out her destiny, the practice of being her best, truest self for her own betterment and that of those around her. Without a doubt, the Queen of Soul produced some of the most memorable music ever recorded, providing fans of the art form with hours of unforgettable listening. But, more than that, she showed us how to stand up for ourselves, how to take charge of our lives and how to be the people we were meant to be. Not bad for a little church choir girl from Detroit.
Initial reviews of this offering have not been especially kind. “Respect” has been compared to many other music industry biopics, such as the Tina Turner biography “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” (1993), with many critics contending that this release is unimaginative and derivative. However, such comparisons are patently unfair in my estimation. Indeed, what are filmmakers supposed to do in a situation like this – change the nature of the story for the sake of originality? That hardly seems like a realistic solution, especially for a story in which the events that constitute it are known and established.
With biographical pictures like this, I believe they need to be judged on the merits of the filmmaking, not necessarily on how inventive they are in terms of narrative or screenplay, for sometimes there’s no way working around what the film needs to depict in order to be factual and accurate. To that end, I must admit that I was favorably impressed with this offering, especially in the outstanding Oscar-worthy lead performance of Jennifer Hudson, the supporting portrayal of Skye Dakota Turner as Aretha’s younger self and the dazzling musical numbers, all of which are absolute knock-outs. Admittedly the film is somewhat formulaic (some might say predictable or even trite in certain sequences) and a bit overlong in its attempt to capture as much of Ms. Franklin’s life story as possible. Nevertheless, in the greater scheme of things, “Respect” is a capably made, exceedingly entertaining offering that’s far from deserving of most of the petty sniping that’s been directed its way. Doing justice to the Queen of Soul is a daunting prospect, to be sure, but I find it difficult to believe that she would be disappointed by the results. The film is playing theatrically and is available for streaming online.
Sadly, “respect” is one of those qualities that is becoming increasingly scare in this contentious day and age. All too often those who hold conflicting views from one another are quick to attack and siphon off whatever reserves of respect that their opponents may have, leading to bitterness, cynicism and discouragement. Aretha’s story, her signature hit and now this film all remind us of how important it is today to hold on to our respect, both for ourselves and for others, even if that requires issuing clarion calls to demand it. It’s a message we had better take to heart given the way things are headed, for, if we don’t, attempts at retrieving our respect at that point may not prove fruitful – and we’ll all end up in a bigger mess than we know what to do with.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Two Unstoppably Fascinating Shows
Movie lovers will want to be sure to tune in to two upcoming episodes of The Good Media Network’s Mission Unstoppable podcast on Facebook Live with host Frankie Picasso and yours truly.
The first, on Thursday September 9 at 1 pm ET, will feature an interview with filmmakers Patrick Sammon and Bennett Singer. We’ll discuss their excellent new documentary, “Cured” (see below), which chronicles the LGBTQ+ community’s efforts to convince the American Psychiatric Association to drop homosexuality from its list of designated mental disorders. Tune in for a lively discussion about this heroic and historic campaign, as well as the details about this superb new film.
Then, on Thursday September 16 at 1 pm ET, join Frankie and me as we speak with writer-director Anthony Saldana about his intriguing documentary “Straight Off the Canvas.” The award-winning film examines the challenges, triumphs and creations of blind artists, capably illustrating what’s possible from those typically thought of as unable to achieve such accomplishments.
Join us for two fascinating conversations!
A Remarkable Breakthrough
Imagine being saddled with a label that was anything but true. What’s more, imagine being cruelly persecuted for that erroneous characterization, subjected to emotional and even physical abuse and mutilation, making life unbearable. Prejudice, discrimination and harassment are nearly constant companions, and such treatment is often inflicted by one’s nearest and dearest, including family members. If it’s possible to picture that, then you have an idea what it might have been like for members of a patently and unfairly disrespected minority community that did nothing to earn or deserve such disgrace. But breakthroughs to such treatment are possible, a story chronicled in the captivating new documentary, “Cured” (web site, trailer, PBS broadcast site).
How do you cure millions of supposedly mentally ill people overnight? By publicly proclaiming that their “affliction” of homosexuality isn’t an affliction at all. So it was in 1973, when the American Psychiatric Association dropped this “condition” from its official list of mental maladies. It was a hard-fought victory in the LGBTQ+ rights movement, one that’s meticulously detailed in this superb new documentary from directors Patrick Sammon and Bennett Singer.
Given the widespread and increasing acceptance of the gay community these days, one might legitimately wonder how and why any kind of effort was needed to recognize it as anything other than normal. Yet times were quite different in the past, and acceptance didn’t come easily. In fact, at one point, there was pervasive hatred of gays, their manners, preferences and lifestyles scorned and considered on par with the vilest of criminals – an apropos analogy given that homosexual acts were generally treated as crimes in themselves.
More than that, however, homosexuality was considered a mental illness. It was first classified as a “diagnosable” disorder in the 1952 edition of the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, and psychiatrists embraced the designation with general consensus. However, opponents of this idea saw this as pseudoscience based on incomplete and distorted data in that it only took into account the experiences of troubled gay individuals, not the community as a whole. Some argued that, if this analogy were applied to heterosexuals, then any straight individuals who saw therapists could also be labeled mentally ill by virtue of their heterosexuality. Nevertheless, despite such protests, this flawed analysis was regarded as the norm and applicable to all gay individuals.
Why was this idea so widely and readily accepted? The 1950s were a conservative time in America, and the traditional nuclear family was unquestioningly the accepted standard. The contention that gays were anomalous and out of step with this idealized notion was thus institutionalized by the psychiatric community, especially with the support of outspoken, high-profile practitioners like Drs. Charles Socarides, Irving Bieber, Lawrence Hatterer, Alfred Bloch and Judd Marmor (who, ironically, would later reverse his view).
Homosexuality was believed to be a learned (but sinful and criminal) behavior, one actively discouraged through scare tactics often thrust upon impressionable school age children. Yet it was also believed that the “condition” could be reversed. Treatment at mental institutions was the cure, but it was more often coerced than recommended. Gays were relentlessly treated like second class citizens, and their exposure led to shame, firing from jobs, the curtailment of career opportunities, housing discrimination, blackmail, loss of child custody and other indignities. The only viable alternatives at the time were cover marriages and staying closeted.
Those who underwent “treatment” at mental institutions suffered horrendously. Among the “cures” commonly used were electroshock therapy, lobotomies and castration. Then there was the widespread practice of aversion therapy, which consisted of electrical shocks being given to patients’ genitals when those individuals were shown erotic photos of members of the same sex. The thinking was that they could be “conditioned,” not unlike Pavlov’s dog, to respond to the expectation of being averse to same-sex attractions and favorable toward opposite-sex attractions.
In the early days of the gay rights movement, members of some of the first organizations fighting for this cause, such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, believed that they needed to eliminate the mental health stigma if the community were to make any progress. Removing the sickness label had to come first. And, ironically enough, some of the biggest boosts in that regard came from the research of professionals (and unexpected allies) like Dr. Alfred Kinsey, Dr. Evelyn Hooker and even Sigmund Freud, all of whom contended that homosexuality was no more of a mental disorder than heterosexuality was.
But these initiatives were just the beginning. Given the many protest movements that emerged in the 1960s, such as those involving civil rights, women’s rights and opposition to the Vietnam War, the gay rights movement was a natural outgrowth of that culture of rebelliousness. And then came the 1969 Stonewall uprising, a protest at a popular New York gay bar that was routinely raided by authorities until one night when the community stood up to the police and said “Enough!” This event changed the course of the movement and brought it above board on a wide scale.
With greater backing, gay activists turned their attention to making a concerted effort at forcing the APA to eliminate the mental illness designation. In 1970, at the group’s annual convention in San Francisco, activists infiltrated the event and began speaking up, contending “there is no cure for that which is not a disease.” Gays told psychiatrists what it’s like to be gay, no longer willing to sit back and be told by them what it means to be gay. The aim was to challenge the APA’s patriarchal, judgmental attitude, an initiative that prompted many members to run for cover. However, there were others – mostly younger and more open-minded psychiatrists – who were willing to listen. Out of this, support arose among more enlightened practitioners, like Dr. Richard Green, who wrote a groundbreaking paper on the subject, suggesting that the science used to justify the APA’s position just didn’t hold up. These psychiatrists, many of them heterosexuals, thus sought to reform the APA from within.
At the same time, gay references were also increasingly creeping into popular culture, such as TV sitcoms, such as All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as well as TV talk shows and movies like “The Boys in the Band” (1970). Gays themselves also became more outspoken in public venues, as seen in an appearance by activist Rev. Magora Kennedy on The David Susskind Show, an experience through which she proclaimed “I’m not going to let you dictate to me about who I am.” Simultaneously, however, the psychiatric profession’s Old Guard dug in, led by dogmatic practitioners like Dr. Charles Socarides, who sought the establishment of a national treatment center for this “disorder” (an ironic proposition given that his own son, Richard, was an emerging gay man at the time).
At the 1972 APA convention in Dallas, a panel discussion platform was set up to debate the sickness label featuring activists Barbara Gittings and Dr. Frank Kameny, as well as “Dr. H. Anonymous,” a self-proclaimed gay psychiatrist (Dr. John Fryer in disguise), whose heartfelt presentation struck a nerve, speaking to the loss of “our honest humanity.” At another gathering, gay therapist Dr. Charles Silverstein made a presentation in which he told psychiatrists that they had to choose between the undocumented theories that had caused considerable harm to many people or the scientific studies to the contrary. These events, in turn, led to the 1973 APA convention in Honolulu, at which gay rights activist Ron Gold gave a stirring presentation titled “Don’t make me sick!”
The turning tide led to the passage of a resolution by the Northeast District Branch of the APA seeking to end gay discrimination and to eliminate the gay sickness diagnosis, an initiative whose impact gradually filtered upward throughout the profession. This momentum strengthened with a 60 Minutes story featuring Silverstein and his efforts to practice therapy aimed at “freeing” gay individuals from their traps of self-imposed isolation, a stance that they had unwittingly come to embrace based on their prior experiences with traditional shame-based therapy.
On December 15, 1973, the APA leadership announced its decision to eliminate the gay sickness diagnosis. According to Dr. Richard Green, millions of individuals were cured overnight with the stroke of a pen. Drs. Socarides and Bieber fought the decision, contending that most psychiatrists didn’t buy into the idea, but their 1974 referendum on the move failed. The mental illness label was at last gone. And, where the LGBTQ+ community was concerned, this was just the beginning.
The gay community’s success in convincing the APA to drop the mental illness stigma was a tremendous accomplishment, and “Cured” does an excellent job in telling that story clearly, concisely and effectively in its economical 80-minute runtime. It profiles the major players and events in this initiative, and it shows how significant, meaningful progress can indeed be made swiftly once a critical tipping point is reached. But, perhaps most importantly, the film chronicles the efforts of courageous, determined individuals – both gay and straight – to make this happen, paying particular attention to the qualities they possessed to bring it about. That’s important, because these attributes figured largely in the beliefs and convictions they held, the building blocks of their efforts, wielding them with the skill and dexterity of expert swordsmen.
For starters, the activists and enlightened psychiatric professionals who worked toward change were firmly rooted in the belief that it was attainable. They saw the flimsy evidence that was being peddled to prop up an erroneous and inexcusable practice and knew that, if it were exposed widely enough, their arguments could be used to change the hearts and minds (and, subsequently, the policies and practices) of those who were allowed to let their misguided viewpoints hold sway virtually unchecked. They believed they could invoke change to correct this longstanding atrocity.
To make this possible, the activists and advocates needed to become galvanized in particular sets of beliefs. First, they needed to convince themselves that the existing limitations that had been holding the gay community back could indeed be overcome. Next, they needed to imbue themselves with faith in themselves and their convictions that change could be implemented, even if the means for doing so weren’t readily apparent, thereby proving that necessity truly is the mother of invention. But, above all, they needed to conquer their fears and live heroically in carrying forth with their plans – not an especially easy course at a time when the prevailing conditions were much less tolerant and those undertaking these ventures could stand to lose a lot.
As history has shown, though, this hard-fought victory opened the flood gates for the gay rights movement, launching a series of subsequent reforms that have carried through to this very day. Still, however, as exemplified by Dr. Socarides’s efforts to overturn the APA’s December 1973 decision, there is yet a need to remain vigilant. As noted in this film and others, like the fictional feature “Boy Erased” (2018) and the recently released documentary “Pray Away” (2021), the threat posed by dangerous, unproven treatment programs like conversion therapy remains and must be continually opposed to prevent backsliding into the days of the gay dark ages of years past. Even though the LGBTQ+ community may be generally convinced that no further “cures” are needed, the possibility that those with misguided agendas might nevertheless try to implement or impose them must be opposed with the same dedication, diligence and commitment that rendered the APA policy outmoded in the first place.
Without a doubt, “Cured” is one of the best documentary releases to have come along in quite some time. The film features a wealth of insightful interviews with those who were on the front lines, as well as ample archive footage depicting key moments in the effort to bring about this decisive change. The film is thus a fitting tribute to many unsung heroes in the gay rights movement, giving them the accolades they have long deserved. Sammon and Singer’s fine offering is great viewing for those who believe in social justice, and it’s especially highly recommended for younger viewers in the LGBTQ+ community who may not – but need to – know the history of their peers and their courageous efforts in bringing about the rights they now so freely enjoy.
“Cured” has principally played the film festival circuit over the past year and has been featured in various special screenings. However, its big breakout opportunity is about to arrive on October 11 – National Coming Out Day – when the film with be broadcast as part of the PBS documentary series Independent Lens. In the run-up to that event, the film will also be featured in the September 9 edition of The Good Media Network’s Mission Unstoppable video podcast on Facebook Live in which host Frankie Picasso and yours truly will interview directors Patrick Sammon and Bennett Singer about this excellent documentary.
It never ceases to amaze me how often humanity goes looking for problems where none, in fact, exist. Fool’s journeys such as these often cause more harm than good and lead to the establishment of misconceptions that become accepted and embedded in the culture, making their reversal and elimination exceedingly difficult, requiring Herculean efforts to effect change. Considering how many times this has happened throughout history, one would think we would have learned this lesson by now, yet such prejudicial fallacies persist in various contexts, often necessitating efforts like those depicted in this film to see them rectified. If the moral of this story helps to further the cause of learning that lesson, then we can only hope that the sacrifices made by those who endured this ordeal were not in vain. At the same time, though, we must ask ourselves, how many times must we experience scenarios like this to finally get things right? If we adjust our outlooks and beliefs so that we don’t pursue trouble needlessly, we’ll be much better off in the long run – and discover that there’s no need to have to go in search of cures in the first place.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
A New Source for Movie Blogs
I’m pleased to announce that select movie reviews from my web site are now also available on the Articles & News page of the Bring Me 2 Life web site, available by clicking here. These reviews are in addition to those that appear on my twice-monthly BM2L podcast, The Cinema Scribe, available by clicking here. New blog entries are available approximately every week. To keep up with the latest posts on the BM2L web site, visit the Articles & News page or watch for details in the BM2L newsletter.
The Power of Comeback
When we move toward – or pass – our prime, we may begin to look upon ourselves and our accomplishments with some dismay, especially if we haven’t lived up to expectations. With the clock ticking ever faster, we might well view our circumstances with melancholy and disappointment, no matter how well or how poorly we may have done. But we need not be stuck with a grim future or a legacy of regret. Comebacks are indeed possible, as seen in the new French sports drama/character study, “Final Set” (web site, trailer).
Thirty-seven-year-old French tennis star Thomas J. Edison (Alex Lutz) is facing an uncertain future. The onetime teen phenom has watched two decades of competition fly by without achieving the payoff he was expected to realize. In recent years, his aging body has begun to fail him, necessitating several knee surgeries followed by ongoing physical therapy. But, prior to that, Thomas had other problems to contend with, most notably wrestling with demons of never living up to his potential. Consequently, he’s spent most of his prime playing years frustrated, waiting for a break that has never come.
To make matters worse, during that time, he’s been under constant pressure from the sports press, routinely bombarded with hostile condemnation over his failure to perform. And, at times, he’s also been hit with comparably cruel criticism from sources closer to home, most notably his disapproving mother, Judith (Kristin Scott Thomas), owner of a prominent Paris tennis club, who has been relentlessly disappointed that her own flesh and blood has let her down in a profession in which she is herself so heavily invested. So much for motherly love.
Given his age, physical condition and track record, Thomas is now squarely staring down the end of his career, despite his forlorn protests to the contrary. He’s having increasing trouble making the cut for tournaments (even lesser-known ones) and, consequently, not being taken seriously. And, on top of this, he’s also having to sit back and watch the rise of a new teenage superstar, fellow French countryman Damien Thosso (Jürgen Briand), a player often compared to a young Edison – but without the unfortunate habit of cracking under pressure.
Despite his dogged determination to carry on, there are those in Thomas’s life who wouldn’t mind seeing him slow down and prepare for retirement. That’s particularly true of his wife, Eve (Ana Girardot), a onetime tennis player who has given up the sport to pursue other interests, such as going back to school. Given the new direction in her life, she could use more help around the house, especially in caring for their young son, Gaspard (Alexandre Angelo Bettanini). She’s also concerned that Thomas may be seriously deluding himself about what lies ahead, particularly the slim hope of him ever attaining the success that has always eluded him – and that he’s not likely to achieve in the playing time he has left. The growing strain in their relationship does not bode well for the future of their marriage.
However, Thomas is not about to give up, despite the physical and mental challenges, not to mention all the criticisms, no matter where they come from. After rejections from several tournaments, he decides to make a run at competing in the prestigious French Open, an event in which he has a chance at qualifying by playing in several preliminary rounds. It’s a long shot, to be sure, but, if he focuses on his game and the breaks fall his way, he just might experience a breakthrough. It would also be a source of redemption for Thomas, given that this same tournament marked the beginning of his downward spiral, choking at a critical point in the competition. It was a devastation from which he never recovered, but now maybe he has an opportunity to make up for that – and to show others that the potential never went away; it just took time to surface.
Much to everyone’s surprise, Thomas is unexpectedly successful. Commentators and sports journalists are quick to note that he’s playing much the same way he did in his youth. For his efforts, he even lands the backing of a commercial sponsor (Fabienne Galula). But, despite such success, the strain continues to grow between Thomas and Eve, just at a time when he could use her support most. And, just when it seems like things couldn’t get any more tense, he learns who his next opponent will be – Damien Thosso. It’s match that will not only test his abilities, but it will also bring him face to face with his own past, taking on an opponent the same age he was when everything fell apart. What outcome can he expect this time?
When we’re convinced that it’s possible to achieve a particular objective, no matter what the odds, that’s a prime example of determination at work. Yet, in the face of such circumstances, many would likely look at us and think we’re daft. But somehow we’re convinced that carrying on is an attainable goal.
Why is that? Is it a reasonable assessment? Wishful thinking? Lunacy run amok? More than anything else, it’s a belief in ourselves and our abilities, one based on supreme confidence and backed by a boatload of courage. And recognizing the significance of that belief is crucial, for it drives the manifestation of the the reality we experience.
The determination Thomas exhibits is quite evident and only grows stronger as his story unfolds. He genuinely believes he can accomplish what he’s set out to do, despite the drawbacks and the criticisms that have been so freely heaped upon him. In fact, the criticisms could even be helping him by making him more determined, more committed to seeing through on his ambitions, no matter how Quixotic they may appear to others.
That belief in oneself is important to anyone undertaking a particular venture, especially one with long odds. It provides the motivation necessary to carry forward, regardless of what we may be up against. Even if we experience setbacks along the way, that steely resolve often provides the drive and energy to continue, to find ways to rebound from errors and overcome obstacles on the path to arriving at our chosen destination. Thomas embodies this concept in virtually all of his efforts to continue competing and capture the prize he so concertedly seeks.
To put oneself into such a state of mind, though, there are other challenges to be surmounted. Most notably there’s the need to face our fears and get past them. As with anything we manifest, fear is something that can be materialized or dispensed with, depending, again, on our beliefs. If we allow fear-based beliefs to hold sway over us, we’ll never attain our goals, for those apprehensions will undermine our efforts at every turn, essentially cancelling our intents, no matter how strongly we hold onto them.
The solution, of course, is to embrace beliefs that are the antithesis of our fears. By choosing to live courageously, we eliminate the apprehensions that would otherwise hold us back. In fact, those empowering heroic sentiments can even energize us, impelling us to ever greater heights of success and attainment. Fewer things can motivate someone seeking to achieve than a courageous outlook, especially when confronted by naysayers spouting the contrary. And, as Thomas plays his way through the Open’s qualifying rounds, he begins to clearly see that for himself.
What’s perhaps most important to recognize in all this is that it’s never too late for a comeback. When we reach a certain point in our lives and careers, many of us embrace various assumptions about ourselves, most of them having to do with giving up hopes of ever returning to previous levels of capability and the prospects of recapturing them. But that only need be the case if we adopt beliefs related to those notions. As Thomas often points out in the film, there are a number of tennis players who achieved their greatest successes at ages older than he is now. Granted, their examples may not be the norm, but fulfilling such achievements is indeed possible, and Thomas would like to believe that he’s one among them. As long as he holds fast to those convictions, he just might succeed. It’s an example that we can all follow, too, whether we’re tennis players, ballerinas or practitioners of any other adventurous endeavor. And it’s comforting to know that the game may not be over when most of us tend to think it’s ended.
This is particularly noteworthy for those of us seeking to redeem ourselves for past failures. Those previous disappointments may have taken quite a toll on us. They may have discouraged us from continuing to try. Or they may have haunted us for years as we’ve resolutely sought to saunter on, constantly reminded of our shortcomings. And, through it all, we may have continually wondered whether we’ll ever live up to what we know we’re capable of. But getting another chance – and believing we’ll succeed at it – can wipe away all of those frustrations, offering us the redemption we’ve long sought. Could that be what’s awaiting Thomas? He’ll soon find out.
It’s easy for sports movies to fall into the trap of being corny, clichéd and trite. However, director Quentin Reynaud’s second feature takes the genre a step further, serving up an engaging, thoughtful character study about a determined but aging French tennis star seeking a comeback and redemption. While some elements of the story are a little repetitive and occasionally predictable, the film nevertheless offers viewers a fresh take on issues like drive, obsession and the price we’re willing to pay to realize a cherished goal, no matter what the milieu. The picture’s fine performances, ethereal score and artfully filmed tennis matches mix well, adding to a narrative that seeks to go beyond the expected and ordinary. “Final Set” definitely delivers more than what one might anticipate, advancing a genre that all too often takes the easy route. The film is playing theatrically and online.
Finding our way back to who and what we once were may be a challenging venture. In fact, we may not succeed at it either. But we’ll never know if we never make the attempt. If nothing else, there’s something to be said for the effort. Just as Thomas seeks to make a storied comeback, what truly matters most is that we undertake the endeavor, regardless of how it turns out. And one can hardly find fault with that.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Abundance and the Silver Screen
What constitutes abundance in our lives? It can take many forms, both good and bad, but what matters most is what we do with it. Find out more by reading “Abundance and the Silver Screen” in the September issue of Modern Warrior magazine. For more about this uplifting new online publication, click here.
Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.