Aretha Franklin’s Music Powered Memorable Moments Onscreen

Aretha Franklin’s Music Powered Memorable Moments Onscreen


Aretha Franklin, who passed away on Thursday, sang with a quality that has proved irresistible to filmmakers and TV showrunners: intensity. It doesn’t matter if the song is up-tempo or a ballad — the range and depth of her catalog makes it a rich resource for directors. To invoke one of her beloved hits for a scene — the soft passion of “I Say a Little Prayer,” the aching heartbreak of “Ain’t No Way” or the thundering spirit of “Respect,” just to name a few — is to call upon the Queen to carry the weight of the moment. And there have been many onscreen moments heightened by her singular voice.

In “Moonlight,” Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-winning drama, “One Step Ahead” appears twice — as Mr. Jenkins himself has noted, it’s the only song repeated — and the stirring melancholy of the track fits both scenes beautifully. The first time, it’s heard when Little (Alex Hibbert), a young boy, returns home to his neglectful mother, who is entertaining a man. The lyrics “I’m only one step ahead of heartbreak” underlie the isolation Little feels as his mother and the man barely acknowledge him, leaving him alone in the living room.

When the song returns in the film’s third act, that sad solitude, now embodied in Black (Trevante Rhodes), the adult version of Little, is accompanied with a small bit of hope — the possibility that Black might reconnect with a significant figure from his past. “One Step Ahead” cues up as soon as Black enters the diner where Kevin (André Holland) works, and lingers as he makes his way to his seat. “Your warm breath on my shoulder/Keeps reminding me that it’s too soon to forget you,” Ms. Franklin sings, just as the camera cuts to a close-up of Kevin recognizing his old friend sitting right in front of him. It’s a powerful moment that encapsulates the film’s themes of memory, longing and regret.

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Those emotions were often present in Ms. Franklin’s work, and she was a master at evoking them. In the 1995 film “Waiting to Exhale,” her wail washes over a scene between Bernadine (Angela Bassett) and James (Wesley Snipes), two strangers who have a deeply intimate connection but are hindered from pursuing a relationship. (She’s reeling from a painful divorce; he is trying to cope with losing his terminally ill wife.) Ms. Franklin’s vocals on “It Hurts Like Hell” — which convey the pain of being unable to admit when a relationship isn’t working — soundtrack a heartbreaking scene of James and Bernadine spooning in bed together, fully clothed.

The first time a track by Ms. Franklin appears in Shonda Rhimes’s “Scandal,” the scene is bleak. Ms. Rhimes lets the singer’s cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” play out as Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and her team mourn the death of one of their colleagues. There’s little dialogue laid over the song, as the characters’ sense of loss mirrors the enormity of Ms. Franklin’s vocals: “Sail on, silver girl/Sail on by/Your time has come to shine.”

Martin Scorsese has used the power of Ms. Franklin’s voice in more sinister contexts. In “Goodfellas,” he turned to “Baby I Love You,” a mid-tempo declaration of affection, for a montage in which Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) details his relationship with his mistress, Janice (Gina Mastrogiacomo). As the camera follows Janice around the chic penthouse Henry is paying for, the song’s funky groove complements their flirtations and sexual tension. Yet in the middle of this sequence is a cut to Henry and his pals viciously beating Janice’s boss for disciplining her at work. “Baby I Love You” chugs along, and the juxtaposition of the violent imagery and the soulful music is jarring.

Even more unsettling is hearing “Do Right Woman — Do Right Man” in Mr. Scorsese’s remake of the thriller “Cape Fear.” In one scene, the sadistic criminal Max Cady (Robert De Niro), calls the teenage Danielle (Juliette Lewis), pretending to be her new teacher. Max hangs upside down, batlike, and gains her trust by promising to serve as her confidant through the pangs of adolescence. “You can use all those fears to draw upon and learn,” he says, before playing her the chorus of Ms. Franklin’s anthem about men being respectful in their relationships with women. It’s a weird scene used to reinforce just how twisted and dangerous Max is.

Ms. Franklin’s music doesn’t always accompany gloomy or ominous moments, however. Her soulful rendition of the theme song to “A Different World” played for four seasons of the 1990s sitcom, her booming voice forever connected to the images of Whitley Gilbert, Dwayne Wayne and the show’s other colorful characters. One could probably compose a lengthy montage made up entirely of (mostly) white film and TV characters singing and dancing exuberantly to hits like “Chain of Fools.” And the notable fictional superfan Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen) found comfort in “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” no less than three times during the original run of the sitcom.

The most memorable of those featured Ms. Franklin herself, who gave a gorgeous performance while accompanying herself on the piano in the Season 4 episode “The Queen of Soul.” The moment was equal parts moving and playful, with the singer chastising Murphy for attempting to sing along with her: “Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not Martha, and you ain’t no Vandella.”

(For an example of how not to use an Aretha Franklin song in a scene, see “The Big Chill,” which features “Natural Woman” when, with approval from his wife, Kevin Kline’s character sleeps with their mutual friend Meg, in the hopes of getting her pregnant. “This bed has always been lucky for Sarah and me,” he tells Meg.)

Yet when it comes to Ms. Franklin’s legacy onscreen, her turn in “Blues Brothers” may loom the largest. That movie, a “Saturday Night Live” sketch turned feature-length musical starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, features uncomfortable exchanges between its white stars and the black artists they encounter; musicians like Cab Calloway, Ray Charles and James Brown exist only to perform a hit and then disappear once the (thin) plot resumes. Ms. Franklin’s performance of “Think” is the best of them: towering and exhilarating. Flanked by background dancers, she confronts with gusto her man, who plans to desert her and the diner she owns to join the Blues Brothers. It doesn’t matter that she isn’t singing the song live — the soulful intensity still shines through, brightly.



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