Aretha Franklin was a riveting live performer, which is why so many retrospectives of her career have focused on her ability to wring intense emotion from essentially any song in existence, especially when she was in front of an audience.
But Franklin made a lot of classic records, and those classic records were used by movies and TV — over and over again, in the case of her most famous tune.
And there was good reason for this. Whether you wanted to infuse a scene with triumph at someone standing up to the forces of adversity (via “Think” or “Respect”) or rich melancholy (via “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” or “One Step Ahead”), Franklin’s music was right there, ready to provide the perfect punctuation mark to any scene.
But the use of Franklin’s music also serves as an inadvertent road map through nearly 40 years of Hollywood history, in which the stories of black Americans went from the margins of stories about white Americans toward the center.
They might both be great scenes, but watching Franklin’s tunes play under romantic reconciliations in 1983’s The Big Chill and 2016’s Moonlight underlines big changes within the industry.
Here, then, are seven iconic Franklin moments from movies and TV — plus a celebration of the Franklin song used more than any other.
1) The Blues Brothers
Aretha Franklin didn’t make tons of onscreen appearances in fictional contexts, much less as characters other than “Aretha Franklin.” But it would be impossible to talk about her legacy in film and television without touching on her immortal appearance as a diner waitress in this 1980 movie musical.
Given its origins as a Saturday Night Live sketch, The Blues Brothers seems like it might be satirical, but the affection the movie feels for some of the greatest music ever made is real. That translates in a sequence where Franklin bursts into a version of her 1968 hit “Think,” an entire diner of people joining her in the sort of elaborately choreographed number only the movies could provide.
2) The Big Chill
Lawrence Kasdan’s terrific 1983 movie about the quiet sorrows of a group of baby boomers mourning a dead friend was one of the earliest examples of a film scored by pop hits from the ’50s and ’60s. The trend would eventually rampage out of control in years to come, but The Big Chill set the standard — and the standard included at least one song by Aretha Franklin.
In Big Chill, that’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” which plays over a romantic interlude and underscores the movie’s core theme of rediscovering the vulnerability and emotional connection you felt when you were younger, then reintroducing your adult self to it.
3) Murphy Brown
The CBS sitcom about a journalist returning to work after a long, public battle with alcoholism used the music of Motown as a way to let Murphy Brown express emotions she might otherwise hold inside.
(Does Hollywood use the music of Aretha Franklin, a black woman, solely to help emotionally repressed white people better express themselves? It kinda did in the ’80s!) Perhaps the series’ best use of Franklin came in its pilot, when star Candice Bergen sings along to “Natural Woman” in what she thinks is a moment of privacy.
But the show would raid Franklin’s catalog frequently, culminating in a fourth-season appearance by the Queen of Soul, in which she shushed Murphy when she tried to sing along.
The soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas is a feast for the ears, all songs chosen because they could have been heard in 1973, when the film is set. Scorsese has said he picked songs that commented on the characters or scene in an “oblique” way.
And when Franklin’s “Baby I Love You” shows up, it’s a perfect match for the mood: Things haven’t started to go badly yet for the fellas, and they’re riding high, fittingly echoed by Franklin crooning about the euphoria of first love.
Shonda Rhimes’s Scandal was known for presenting its heroine Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) as someone who’s unapologetically herself, flaws and all, but also the toughest person in the cutthroat world of Washington politics. It’s natural, then, that Rhimes’s show kept coming back to Aretha Franklin, whose legacy includes not only songs that are perfect for the show — like “Respect” (obviously), “Think”, and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” — but also a pervasive sense of power and a fighting spirit that came through in those songs. Aretha had to fight to for her place in the business and her legacy, and was unapologetic in who she was — the kind of person Olivia Pope would’ve looked up to.
On Twitter, Barry Jenkins noted that “there’s only one song that plays twice, in two different time periods” in Moonlight, his 2017 Best Picture-winning drama. That song is Franklin’s “One Step Ahead.” It first plays during the film’s first act, when young Chiron comes home after Juan gives him a swimming lesson to discover his mother with a man.
The song returns in the third act, when Chiron, now grown, goes to a diner to find his childhood friend Kevin, following a desire that he hasn’t quite articulated to himself yet.
Lyrics from the song’s two verses perfectly encapsulate who Chiron is: “I’m only one step ahead of heartbreak / One step ahead of misery,” and later, “… It’s too soon to forget you / It’s too late to be free, can’t you see? / I’m only one step ahead of your love.”
One particularly perfect use of Franklin’s music came just this summer, when Netflix’s comedy about the titular ’80s women’s wrestling league ended the best episode of its second season with Franklin’s swooning “You’re All I Need to Get By.” “The Mother of All Matches” centers on two single mothers doing whatever they can to build a better life for their sons, and even if their circumstances are vastly different (one is a black woman asked to play a racial stereotype in the ring; the other is a white woman who gets to play a champion for goodness and virtue), their love for their sons unites them — something perfectly encapsulated in Franklin’s soulful tune.
Of course, if you’re going to talk about Aretha songs being used in TV and movies, it’s impossible to do so without talking about …
The legacy of Franklin’s definitive cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” has eclipsed the original, both on record and onscreen. (Sorry, Otis.) “Respect” is so evocative and so endlessly useful in storytelling that it’s passed the status of cliché and looped back around again to being immortal. IMBD lists 65 uses of “Respect” in TV and film, but frankly, that sounds like a lowball to us — surely there must be hundreds.
When you want to do a shot of a woman gleefully striding toward the camera, deserving of just a little respect, you blast Aretha. When you want to do a montage of someone training for a goal, thus earning the audience’s respect, you blast Aretha.
“Respect” plays on the third episode of Sex and the City when Carrie meets her friends at the movies and demands that their single status be given the respect it deserves.
“Respect” plays when Susan is caught trying to steal a pair of rhinestone boots in Desperately Seeking Susan. Respect is what everyone wants, and no one can demand it better than Aretha.