Queen of Soul? She wasn’t even in the castle.
Oh, Aretha Franklin could sing, no question. Everyone from Dinah Washington to Duke Ellington knew that. From the time she was 10, Aretha—Ree to her friends and family—was belting out blues and gospel and jazz standards at her father’s Saturday-night parties. Then on Sunday mornings—when her father shook off his hangover and took to the pulpit of Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church—she’d sing again, lifting her voice to Jesus.
At the age of 18, Ree signed a contract with Columbia Records. From 1960 to 1966, she’d cut nine albums and performed countless times—with nary a hit to show for it. She could sing it all: jazz and pop, gospel and blues. Anything her daddy, C.L. Franklin, told her to sing, she did, and she’d sing it well.
And that, legend Dinah Washington suggested, was part of the problem. She was trying to make a name for herself with other people’s songs.
“Girl, you all over the place,” she told Ree. “What do you want to sing?”
That’s why she and husband Ted White drove to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in 1967: To figure out what she wanted to sing.
Here, in the deep south, Blacks were still picking cotton, and the hardscrabble studio was filled with white musicians. White, racist musicians, Ted assumed. But Aretha sat down at the piano and began to play—and found that these white boys could play, too. And after recording one song—“I Never Loved a Man (The Way I love You)”—Ree knew this was it. This was what, this was how, she wanted to sing.
But then, disaster. One of the musicians made the mistake of putting his arm around Ree, and that was it for the violent Ted. When the studio’s owner Rick Hall came by the hotel to make peace, he and Ted made war instead. And Rick wasn’t the only one who Ted slugged in the aftermath of that recording session. Soon after, Ree headed back to her father’s Detroit home, sporting a black eye.
One day. One song. One full-blown disaster.
But that one song … it was a good song.
Not long after, Ree was walking down the sidewalk with the rest of the Franklin family when her son, Clarence, heard a familiar voice from a record-store speaker. It was his mom’s voice, belting “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”.
Before that song was finished, it’d hit No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 9 on Billboard’s Top 40.
Aretha Franklin had her first real hit. She’d entered the throne room and seen the crown. And it was just a couple of months before she would earn some serious respect.
When Ree was but a child, she leaned on two important maternal figures to help her navigate her strange, difficult childhood.
Her mother was, of course, the first. Barbara Franklin had separated from father C.L. long ago, but she still saw her kids as often as she could. And when she and Ree got together, they’d sometimes sit down at the piano and “sing-talk,” where Ree could tell Barbara about her life. During one of those conversations, Barbara tells her daughter that she doesn’t always have to be a wind-up performer for C.L. on Saturdays and Sundays.
“Your Daddy doesn’t own your voice,” Barbara tells her. “Nobody does except for God.”
When Barbara dies before Ree’s 10th birthday, her grandmother—Big Mama Franklin—steps into those large maternal shoes. She becomes Ree’s primary source of stability throughout the rest of her childhood and well into adulthood, serving as a voice of reason and assurance. And when Aretha has children of her own (at an incredibly early age), Big Mama often cares for them through Ree’s chaotic touring schedule and incredibly dark moods.
More complex is Aretha herself. Even as her songs become empowering anthems for the Civil Rights movement and women everywhere, she has to deal with some difficult and abusive men in her own life. She gives a voice to others, but it takes her a while to find her own voice and her own steel to push rightfully back on some of the abuses she experienced.
Even after she successfully demands the “respect” she so often sings about, Ree isn’t on her way to a happily-ever-after ending. Her dark moods push her into alcoholism, the movie tells us. But to her credit, she pulls herself away from the booze—with, as we’ll see, a little help from Jesus.
Ree was raised, almost literally, in the Church. Father C.L. was a nationally recognized speaker and pastor, and by the time the movie starts he’s leading New Bethel—Detroit’s largest church. He talks about Jesus from the pulpit, of course, but he also talks about civil rights, comparing the plight of Black people in the U.S. to Daniel in the lion’s den. Ree, when she’s not singing, is shouting along with the rest of the congregation. “Praise God!” she shouts. “Preach, Daddy!”
But C.L.’s a hypocrite, too. His serial affairs and Saturday night parties are proof of that. He’s not alone. Ray Charles is quoted as saying that the best sex he ever had was while he was performing on the gospel circuit.
Still, it’s clear that faith is a big part of Ree’s upbringing, and the women in her life showcase that faith well. We mentioned that mother Barbara told Ree that only God owns her voice. Big Mama also undergirds the importance of faith. After Ree’s traumatized by an event we’ll cover in the next section, Mama reassures her that, whatever it is, God can help.
“I know you don’t want to tell me, but you can always tell the Lord,” Mama says. “He loves you no matter what.”
But while we see plenty of Christian content throughout the film, the final act crescendos into a truly Christian story arc. We see Ree at rock bottom. She’s not showing up to concerts. She’s shoved most everyone away. Her home is filled with empty alcohol bottles. And finally, she kneels and prays—and seems to be visited by her dead mother who leads her in the Lord’s Prayer. This leads to a spiritual turn for Ree and the recording of her gospel album Amazing Grace.
We see and hear plenty of other spiritual content as well, from the crosses that Aretha often wears around her neck to a mural of Jesus in church to the number 666 graffitied on a wall as Ree goes to meet her soon-to-be husband, and abuser, Ted White. Ree seems to suffer from some mental illness, which is often described as a “demon.”
When Ree’s just a child (10 years old, according to the movie), a teen attending one of C.L.’s parties enters Ree’s bedroom and asks if she wants him to be her boyfriend. “We’ll have fun,” he promises as he shuts the door behind them. The next morning, Ree is very quiet and won’t tell anyone what happened. Later on, we see young Ree very pregnant. (In real life, Aretha had given birth to two children by the time she was 14.)
Later, she meets and flirts with Ted, with the movie suggesting that the affair began in part as an act of rebellion against Ree’s controlling father. We see the two kiss several times, and Ree wakes up in Ted’s apartment, partly covered only in a blanket. After they’re married and head to Muscle Shoals, a trumpeter drapes his arm around Ree’s shoulders, sending Ted into a simmering rage. He suggests that all the band members would like to have violent sex with her, and it would serve her right if he left her in Alabama so they could have their way with her.
Ree and Ted kiss and make out elsewhere. But after the couple splits, Ree wastes no time in welcoming another lover into her bed. (She adjusts her clothes to augment her breasts after she invites her prospective lover over.) We see the two in bed, both apparently naked under the sheets, as they spoon. Ree kisses her new beau a couple of times, too, and it looks as if the man (Ken Cunningham) might want to perform oral sex on Ree as he gives her a foot rub. We see a number of couples get quite cozy during one of C.L.’s parties, including a same-sex couple. Ree grabs Ted’s rear as they walk into a building.
C.L. did everything he could to keep Ted away from Ree—including pointing a gun at him during a Sunday afternoon dinner. (Mama forces C.L. to put the gun away.)
Turns out C.L. was right to be worried. Ted is an abusive husband. Ree leaves him for a time after Ted gives her a black eye, but goes back when Ted promises to be better. Ted lunges at Aretha in a hotel elevator as the doors close. She later runs from him down the hallway. When the attack is made public in Time magazine and Ted thunders about suing the publication, Aretha reminds him that he did attack her. Ted grabs her face and neck and tells her that any other man would’ve killed her by now.
We see Ted and another man fight in a hotel room (though most of it is out of view of the camera). Ted throws a wad of bloodstained money on a table—apparently money a nightclub owed Ree for performing. (Aretha tells him that if he keeps beating up people, there won’t be any clubs in New York left where she can perform.) Aretha falls off a stage, much to the shock of onlookers. She smashes a guy in the nose with her elbow, drawing blood. Two people die during the movie, though we learn of their passing only over the phone.
About a dozen s-words are heard. We also hear several uses each of “a–,” “d–n” and “n—er,” along with one or two of “b–ch,” “b–tard” and “p-ssed.” God’s name is misused four times, while Jesus’ name is abused twice. In addition to the n-word (which is used pretty frequently here), Ted uses a number of disparaging terms toward whites, including “whitey” and “cracker.”
C.L. accuses an adult Ree of not walking with God anymore, because of her “drinking and whoring.” Aretha snaps back that she learned it all from C.L., and indeed C.L. seems a little inebriated even during their conversation.
Alcohol flows freely during C.L.’s parties, with plenty of glasses of whiskey and wine being held and quaffed. (People smoke, too, and marijuana might be part of the mix.) C.L. often has a glass of whiskey beside him during quiet moments at home. Ted also drinks to excess. He’s holding a bottle of what may be vodka in a hotel room as he steams over (what he interprets as) the disrespect that he and Aretha suffered at the studio. When the studio’s owner shows up with a flask in hand—and suggests that they share a drink to patch things up—it leads to a physical confrontation at least partly fueled by the liquor Ted had already consumed.
But the heaviest drinker here is likely Aretha herself. During her lowest period, we see her home strewn with tons of empty liquor bottles (as she works at emptying another), and she later admits that she doesn’t want to do anything but drink. When Aretha prays and, apparently, receives a visit from her dead mother, Barbara, Barbara pries a bottle of liquor out of her daughter’s hand and sets it aside. Later, Ree and her current lover, Ken, silently clean up the house, throwing away the empty bottles.
Racism is an inescapable part of Aretha Franklin’s story. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a family friend of the Franklins, and we occasionally hear about those tensions and tragedies. Ted is appalled by the number of Black people he sees still picking cotton near Muscle Shoals. And when all of Aretha’s studio musicians turn out to be white, Ted concludes that Black residents don’t have nearly the opportunities that whites do.
But the movie stresses that Ted’s prickly nature, particularly over issues of race, cause unnecessary problems. We see his hair-trigger temper on ready display, a temper that Aretha subtly tries to control.
Aretha—a strong advocate for Civil Rights—makes some pretty strong statements as well. She calls police “pigs” in one conversation. And at times she seems to advocate for a more aggressive confrontation of racism than the peaceful resistance advocated by both King and her father.
Marianne Faithful once said that Aretha Franklin’s voice was the “voice of God.” But the singer’s life was anything but divine.
As chronicled in Respect (and National Geographic’s mesmerizing miniseries Genius: Aretha from earlier this year), her life was difficult and often tragic—and sometimes made worse by her own decisions. If Franklin was famous for the staccato thunderbolt verse “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” her life was filled with M-I-S-T-A-K-E-S.
In that light, Respect certainly has its bumpy spots that deserve several words of warning, especially for younger viewers. The fact that Franklin first got pregnant when she was 12 is an inescapable part of her life. The fact that we see her in bed with unmarried men is not, however, an inescapable decision in this movie. The film contains more problematic content than is, perhaps, strictly necessary. It’s a messy story, no doubt.
But it’s done in service to a fascinating, and ultimately inspiring, tale—one that director Liesl Tommy chose to end on an explicitly Christian note.
Late in the film, C.L. apologizes to Ree for doubting her faith. “You were with God,” he says. “You were always with God.”
But Ree knows better. She shakes her head and says, “God was with me.” Despite her demons, despite her choices, despite the fact that she sometimes seemed to run away from God, He was always there—loving, welcoming, forgiving. It just took Aretha some time to understand that.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.