RESPECT*CUT TO THE CHASE*
1950, Detroit. Young Aretha Franklin splits her time between her divorced parents, Pastor C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker) and Barbara (Audra McDonald). Aretha loves singing and loves to sing for all the guests at C.L.’s house parties. Later, Barbara plays the piano and sings with her, and tells her to remember that she doesn’t have to sing for her dad if she doesn’t want to and that her voice is her own, not her father’s. Later, during one of her father’s parties, an adult male guest comes upstairs and shuts the door, sexually molesting Aretha (off-screen).
Later, Aretha’s grandmother (Kimberly Scott) notices her behavior is strange and asks her what is going on with her. Aretha won’t tell, but her grandmother tells her if she can’t say it to anyone she can always say it to god. Later, the family receives the upsetting news that Barbara has died. Aretha is devastated and stops singing and even speaking altogether. At her birthday party she won’t even blow out the candles. Her father is frustrated and gives up, not knowing what to do with her. James Cleveland (Titus Burgess), a family friend and leader of the church choir, encourages Aretha that music will always save her. Aretha agrees to tour with her father’s sermons and sing.
In 1958, Aretha (Jennifer Hudson) is singing in Birmingham, Alabama and working with the civil rights groups in America. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. a friend of C.L.’s, praises Aretha and invites her to do more work, but she returns back to Detroit with her father, where here grandmother is watching her two kids (which she had a result of the sexual assaults). At a house party, Ted White (Marlon Wayans) a local producer, makes eyes at Aretha, who is attracted to him. C.L. threatens Ted to stay away from his daughter and calls him the n-word. C.L. then surprises Aretha with tickets to New York to meet about a record deal.
In New York City, C.L. and Aretha meet with John Hammond (Tate Donovan) at Columbia Records, who offers Aretha a recording contract. By 1960, Aretha is still making music but has never had a hit song. She continues making albums, and in 1963, she is performing at a show where family friend, singer Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige), is in the audience. Aretha starts singing one of Dinah’s song in tribute and Dinah gets so offended she flips her table over. She meets with Aretha afterward meets with Aretha, who is lamenting that she doesn’t have any hits. Dinah tells her it’s because her dad keeps picking songs that she doesn’t believe in and she needs to record that music that she believes in.
Aretha remembers the trauma of her sexual assaults and sleeps in late. She arrives for her recording session an hour late. Hammond is just relieved to find Aretha, but C.L. is furious with her. This leads to an argument between him and Aretha, where Aretha says she doesn’t want to sing the songs he picks because he doesn’t pick any hits, and C.L. slaps her in the face. He tells Hammond in front of everyone that Aretha has carried this darkness with her since she was a child.
Later, Aretha runs into Ted again. He makes it clear he is interested in her and asks her to sing for him alone. The two begin seeing each other, and one morning at Ted’s place Aretha sees he has all her albums. He tells her believes he can manage her into making actual hits. Eventually, Aretha brings him home to meet her family. Aretha’s sisters are shocked, knowing how their father will react. When he sees Ted, C.L. pulls a gun on him until his mother calms him down. Aretha tells them not only are they together, but she wants Ted to manage her. She tells her father it’s what needs to happen, and he tells her she will come begging for him to take her back.
By 1966, Aretha has been dropped by her record company, and is married to and has a child with Ted, who is beating up club owners to get money he is owed. Ted gets Aretha a meeting with Ted Wexler (Marc Maron) at Atlantic Records. Wexler wants to finally give her a hit record, and recommends she work with some southern musicians he knows in Alabama. Ted, who is an aggressive manager, is furious, wanting Aretha to only record in New York, but Wexler promises the musicians are the real deal.
In 1967, Aretha and Ted go to Alabama to record. Ted is angry that the musicians are all white and refuses to record, but eventually, he eases in to letting Aretha record “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You”. That night, at the motel, Ted tells Aretha they will not return in the morning. The manager of the studio comes by to try to make peace with Ted, but Ted hears none of it and eventually goads the manager into a physical altercation. Afterward, Ted turns his ire onto Aretha, who he assaults.
Aretha leaves the recording and leaves Ted and returns how to Detroit with a black eye, where her family takes her in. Wexler tries to find Aretha but can’t. Walking down the street they hear Aretha’s song on the radio, and she reaches out to Wexler and tells her she’s ready to keep recording and hires her sisters as her backup singers. Ted returns to Aretha and apologizes – she takes him back, but afterward Aretha’s sisters warn her not to. They remind her that her parents fought all the time. Late one night Aretha plays the piano and plays around with re-arranging the song “Respect”. Her sisters help her work out the song, which they eventually play for Wexler.
Respect is a massive hit, and by 1968 Aretha is selling out Madison Square Garden. Aretha has become a huge success and has many hits and is famous worldwide. Aretha tells Ted she has agreed to perform at a benefit show for her father, but Ted says he has meetings lined up for her. When Aretha refuses, Ted physically assaults her in a hotel elevator and Aretha flees in the lobby. Aretha and Ted go in for a meeting with Wexler and the whole company, including tour manager Ken Cunningham (Albert Jones), who are so excited that they have dates lined up for a European tour for Aretha. Ted is irate and says they refuse to do a tour and wants Aretha to do movies, even getting in Wexler’s face, but when they tell them how much the tour will be worth, Ted relents and they begin the tour.
In Amsterdam, the press asks Aretha about the article about her in Time magazine which has witnesses saying they saw Ted assault her in the hotel. Ted is furious, saying he will sue the magazine, but Aretha angrily asks him how he could do that since the article is true. This leads to a vicious argument between the two where Aretha demands better treatment from him, but eventually, she says she’s had enough and kicks Ted out for good. Needing comfort, she calls Ken – he comes to her side and the two begin a romantic relationship.
Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated, devastating Aretha and her entire circle. Aretha sings at his funeral, and afterward sits at the bar with C.L., who picks a fight with her when she says she supports a more radical approach to civil rights like the kind Angela Davis has taken on – he accuses her of not walking in the spirit. Aretha goes on to publicly voice support for Davis in the press. By 1970, Aretha and Ken are together and have their own child in a massive mansion in Los Angeles. When her crew tries to lessen her tour schedule since Aretha has a habit of missing shows. They think she has been drinking too much and giving in to her “demons”. Aretha viciously lashes out at all of them, including her own sisters, telling everyone she pays for all of them and they all need her.
Aretha shows up to a concert drunk and falls off the front of the stage. Ken tells her he can’t do this anymore. Aretha begins drinking herself into a stupor alone until she sees a vision of Barbara, who holds her and sings “amazing grace”. The next day, Aretha begins sobering up and reconciles with Ken. In 1972, she goes to Wexler and tells him she wants to make her next album a gospel album. He isn’t sure about it but ultimately comes around to supporting her, and suggests a camera crew document it to show white audiences about that part of her life.
The live album is set to be recorded in a church, and James Cleveland helps arrange everything. During a rehearsal, Aretha breaks down in tears, and James comforts her. She tells him she cannot fall apart like that in front of the cameras, and James tells her that god will be there and that god knows what happened to her as a child was not her fault. Aretha’s entire family shows up for the recording of her album, including C.L., who apologizes for what he said to her about not walking in the spirit. Aretha begins singing, and the post-script notes that the album went on to be her greatest selling album of all time.
The film ends with footage of the real Aretha Franklin.
Aretha Franklin (Jennifer Hudson)'s mother dies when she is a child, traumatizing her, and she is sexually molested and has two children. She is a gifted singer and eventually gets a record contract and is managed by her domineering father C.L. (Forest Whitaker) but she never produces any hits. She falls in love with Ted White (Marlon Wayans), who she leaves C.L. for to be her new manager, infuriating him. They have a child together.
Aretha begins recording with a new label and leans in to her soul style, and Ted eventually reveals himself to be physically and verbally abusive. Aretha finally begins getting music success, and eventually, the song "Respect" launches her into superstardom. She eventually leaves Ted and begins dating her tour manager, but her trauma in her past leads her to drinking and missing concerts. Finally, she gets clean and records a gospel album that goes on to be her best-selling one ever.