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In 1952, 10 year-old Aretha Franklin is woken by her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, to sing at a weekly party attended by various African American luminaries, including Dinah Washington, Clara Ward, Sam Cooke, Ella Fitzgerald, and James Cleveland. Aretha sings and brings the house down. While in church, Aretha's elder sister, Erma Franklin, a talented singer in her own right, questions the preference their father shows Aretha in spite of Erma's own status as the firstborn before being soothed by their grandmother. While visiting her mother, Barbara, she is reminded that she must never fear a man and should only sing when she feels like singing, and speak when she feels like speaking. Aretha remembers this message after being sexually assaulted at one of her father's parties, and the following morning, refuses to mention why she feels upset.
The sudden death of Aretha's mother further traumatizes her, and as a result, Aretha is unwilling to speak. Frustrated, during her piano lesson with Cleveland, Reverend Franklin orders him to prepare her to sing before his sermon the next morning. Cleveland reminds her of her love for music and advises her to never let anything get between her and music.
The next morning, Aretha stands up to sing in church and begins to perform "There is a fountain filled with blood." As she sings, the film transitions to an adult Aretha, now a mother of two, singing for a Civil Rights Movement service hosted by her father and featuring Martin Luther King, whom Aretha knows as "Uncle Martin." As the service concludes, Aretha, eager to get out from under her father's control, expresses to Dr. King that while she is grateful for her role traveling and singing for the movement, she wishes to march with him as well. Dr. King dissuades her, but does convince her to speak with her father. When she returns home, Aretha expresses doubt in her ability to be a good mother to her sons Clarence and Edward, cared for by Erma and her grandmother, with assistance from Carolyn, though her grandmother reassures her that her sons love her dearly.
At a party to celebrate the return of Aretha and Reverend Franklin, Aretha is greeted by close friend Smokey Robinson, who offers her a chance to join a new record label in Detroit. Aretha is excited for the opportunity, and is in the middle of persuading her sisters to help ask her father, when she notices Ted White (Wayans), a local producer. The two strike up a conversation before being interrupted by Rev. Franklin, who warns Ted to stay away from his family. Later, Rev. Franklin surprises Aretha with tickets to New York for a meeting with Columbia Records executive John Hammond. After being offered a contract, Aretha begins to sing jazz records with Columbia, including "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive."
Four albums later, Aretha still lacks a signature hit as a jazz singer. At a performance, she begins to sing a tribute to inspiration and longtime family friend Dinah Washington, but Washington angrily flips a table before later counseling a distraught Aretha to find songs that move her, and to stop trying to fit the polished image her father wants her to display. Aretha is reunited with Ted White, with whom she begins a relationship. Frustrated by her lack of success after nine albums, Aretha begins skipping recording sessions to see him, embarrassing her father. Much to the chagrin of her sisters, and the dismay of their father, Aretha returns home and introduces Ted to her family and announces her desire to have Ted become her manager. Her father consents, but is convinced that Aretha will one day beg to be managed by him again.
Ted and Aretha marry and have a child, while Aretha is ultimately dropped by Columbia after nine albums without a single hit. Ted secures a deal with veteran record producer Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, who pairs her with accomplished musicians in Muscle Shoals, where Aretha begins to record her first hit, I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You). Aretha plays piano as the musicians around her begin to riff around her, producing what everyone knows will be a hit song. However, Aretha's recording session is cut short after Ted gets into a fight with the manager of the studio.
After an argument with Ted results in a black eye, Aretha returns home to Detroit, and listens to Otis Redding's hit song "Respect" on the radio. While out with her sons, Aretha hears her song on the radio, empowering her to take a more hands on role in her career, arranging for her sisters, Erma and Carolyn, and cousin, Brenda to work as her background singers, and to continue working with the Muscle Shoals musicians. One night, Aretha and Carolyn are inspired to re-arrange "Respect," which becomes a #1 single. Aretha performs the song to a sold out crowd in Madison Square Garden, her status as a superstar cemented. Carolyn continues to write songs for Aretha, including "Ain't No Way" as Aretha becomes increasingly independent and empowered as her star rises, causing Ted to become more and more insecure. Erma and Carolyn advise Aretha to leave Ted, who continues to hit her.
Before a concert, Martin Luther King honors Aretha with an award from the Southern Christian Leadership Center, proclaiming February 16 as "Aretha Franklin Day" in Detroit. Aretha sings another signature hit, "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," and makes plans to sing for another civil rights event in Memphis, defying Ted's plan for her to meet with Wexler and other executives to discuss the prospect of a tour. The two argue in their hotel before Aretha ultimately agrees to the meeting with the Atlantic executives. Ted and Wexler nearly come to blows over Ted's pick for the accompanying musicians, as the Muscle Shoals musicians have formed the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, but their tension is defused by Aretha, who agrees to sing with Ted's musicians. Ken Cunningham becomes Aretha's tour manager, handling the logistics of the tour.
As Aretha performs "Chain of Fools" to a passionate crowd in the Netherlands who shower her with tulips, Ted comes on stage mid-performance after a fan nearly grabs Aretha, before being calmed down. Aretha is asked by a reporter if she has any response to TIME Magazine article claiming Ted struck her in the hotel lobby, giving no response. An angry Ted vows to sue the magazine, but Aretha challenges how he'll sue a magazine for reporting the truth. He attempts to hit her again, but Aretha stand up to him and ends their relationship.
After marriage with Ted ends, Aretha begins dating Ken, a supportive man with whom she eventually has a child. Aretha, who is now managed by her brother, continues to release the hits she desires, but she has begun to overwork herself, constantly double booking appearances, and copes with the pressure of her career by increasingly turning to alcohol. Aretha's siblings attempt to stage an intervention, but Aretha angrily reminds her siblings that they are supported by her success, and insists in her ability to handle herself. Aretha's demons continue to trouble her, including an incident where she accidentally strikes Ken while in bed with him. During a performance, while singing "I Say A Little Prayer," a drunken Aretha falls from the stage and breaks her arm.
While she recovers and her relationship with Ken becomes more and more frayed, Aretha continues to find solace in her drinking until she sees a vision of her mother and decides to sober up. Shortly after, she learns of Dr. King's assassination and sings at his memorial service. Aretha's distraught father drunkenly argues with her over the direction of the Movement, expressing doubt in the younger generation's patience and ability to make long-term gains, before ultimately telling Aretha that she no longer walks in the spirit. As Clara Ward, his longtime girlfriend, attempts to calm him down, he angrily lashes out against her. Aretha stands up for her before leaving.
After paying the bail of Angela Davis, Aretha becomes convinced that she must return to her gospel roots, and approaches Jerry Wexler with the idea of producing a live gospel album. Doubtful of the album's ability to sell, Wexler attempts to dissuade her from doing it, before relenting on the condition that she allow the recording to be filmed. Aretha begins rehearsals with James Cleveland, now a respected gospel artist. During rehearsals, Aretha breaks down at the memory of her mother teaching her to sing and pray, and tearfully questions her ability to fight back her demons long enough to produce a good album. Cleveland emphatically tells her that there never was a demon; that "demon" is only the name she gave the pain she was used to carrying her, and reminds her that music is her opportunity to release that pain. He also reminds her of her roots within the Black church, and advises her to let the Spirit lead.
During the recording, Aretha is happy to see that her father has agreed to come. Reverend Franklin reveals that it was Clara Ward, who has begun to stand up for herself since that night in the bar, who convinced him to come. He apologizes to Aretha for the pain he has caused her, and informs her that despite what he said, she has always walked with God. Aretha corrects him and responds that God has always been with her, even when she tried her best to fight Him away. As Aretha walks down the aisle to record, she greets her father, sisters, brother, Clara, and Ken before taking the stage to sing.
As she sings "Amazing Grace," notes inform the audience that her 1972 gospel album Amazing Grace became the highest selling album of her career, selling over two million copies in the United States alone and earning a double platinum certification, and remains the highest selling live gospel album of all time in addition to being one of the genre's highest selling albums. The audience is also informed that Aretha continued to record music until 2014. As the credits roll, Aretha's performance of Natural Woman at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors plays.
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