From 'The Blues Brothers' to 'Moonlight,' here's how Franklin's music informed iconic moments in cinema

By Christian Holub
August 16, 2018 at 11:09 AM EDT

Aretha Franklin died Thursday at the age of 76, but the Queen of Soul left a lasting footprint on pop culture. Not only did her groundbreaking soul songs dominate the airwaves for decades, they also amplified other aspects of culture as well. Franklin’s shows often showed up in movies and TV, and they had a powerful impact each time.

EW assembled a list of the some of the most powerful uses of Franklin songs in films over the years. Each one shows how her music could add new meaning to all kinds of different scenes and contexts.

The Blues Brothers (1980): “Think”

One of the few times where Franklin actually showed up on screen to perform her music came in the iconic 1980 comedy film based on the popular Saturday Night Live sketch. When Jake and Ellwood Blues stop by a soul food restaurant on their journey to recruit a member of their old band, his wife (Franklin) has some choice words for him, and performs “Think” with the help of some backup dancer friends. It doesn’t have much of an effect on the band members, who leave as soon as she finishes her song, but it raises the question: Why they didn’t just recruit her, one of the greatest singers of all time, to be the band’s lead vocalist? A mystery for the ages.

St. Elmo’s Fire (1985): “Respect”

Franklin’s voice was so powerful and charismatic that it could often prove irresistible fodder for private jam sessions. Even normally-sullen writers like Kevin Dolenz (Andrew McCarthy) were not immune to the music’s pull.

Goodfellas (1990): “Baby I Love You”

Martin Scorsese’s iconic gangster film features an incredible soundtrack of pop, rock, and R&B, because he only wanted to soundtrack scenes with songs that could have been heard at the time The added bonus, of course, is that his criminal protagonists also get infused with the same kind of cultural energy that produced that music. Franklin’s song delivers, scoring one of the scenes where things are going well and the characters feel on top of the world, before it all comes crashing down.

Paris Is Burning (1991): “Who’s Zoomin’ Who”

The best-ever chronicle of New York City’s “ball” culture in the ‘80s, Paris Is Burning shows how these performers took popular songs and gave them new meaning. Already a chronicle of how gaze and perspective can change the meaning of a relationship, “Who’s Zoomin Who” was a perfect example of this transformation and translation, alongside fellow pop hits like Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and Cheryl Lynn’s “Got To Be Real.”

Moonlight (2016): “One Step Ahead”

When Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) decides to meet up with his old friend (André Holland) after years apart, it necessitates him shedding the bad-boy drug dealer persona he’s built up and allowing himself to be vulnerable again. This change is depicted in multiple levels, including the shift from the loud hip-hop of Chiron’s interstate car ride to Franklin’s magnificent voice soundtracking his entrance into the homey atmosphere of Kevin’s restaurant.   

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