Aretha Franklin Shines In, And Despite, The New Miniseries, 'Genius: Aretha'

Mar 19, 2021
Originally published on March 19, 2021 1:23 pm

Soul legend Aretha Franklin received the television-miniseries treatment with Genius: Aretha, a project that works best when it lets her music do the talking.

Cynthia Erivo plays Aretha who, moments into the start of Genius, makes it clear that they found the right woman for this job. Recreating the tumultuous life of Aretha Franklin requires more, however, than just singing her classic hits with power and excitement. It requires revisiting a life filled with trauma and challenges, as foreshadowed by journalists questioning Franklin on who "calls the shots," her father or her husband, at a press conference (to which she responds, "I think you've all been reading a few too many gossip columns").

She learns to free herself from the men in her life determined to dominate her, beginning with her father, renowned Baptist preacher and civil rights activist the Rev. C.L. Franklin. Courtney B. Vance is magnetic as the elder Franklin, a preacher who, one character says, "loved Sunday morning and Saturday night." In one scene, he's urging a tween-age Aretha to sing at a house party before Art Tatum and Dinah Washington. But the Rev. Franklin is also shown as a compulsive womanizer, confronted by his girlfriend — who Aretha had grown to love, hoping she would become her stepmom.

A fight over infidelity followed by violence is a cycle we see repeated with Aretha and her husband Ted, after he ruins a recording session by fighting in the studio. "You were supposed to be good as gold," Aretha says.

Despite crackling performances from Erivo, Vance and the actress who plays young Aretha, Shaian Jordan, Genius: Aretha too often unfolds like a predictable biopic burdened by ham-handed storytelling.

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It's the third installment of National Geographic's Genius anthology series, but the first about a woman or a non-white person, following seasons on Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso. So, some may be disappointed in how it presents a succession of Black men who take advantage of Franklin, from her philandering father, to her philandering husband, to a man who left her pregnant at age 12.

The best moments involve showing how Franklin transitioned from gospel star to soul diva. That includes a scene where producer, songwriter and performer Curtis Mayfield urges her to channel her tribulations into her vocals in the studio: "You move people; you take the heaviness of life and you make it beautiful. We need that."

Aretha sings again, but this time pouring herself out over a swaying track called "Something He Can Feel." If more moments in Genius: Aretha matched this one, it would truly be the triumph Erivo and the Queen of Soul deserve.

Genius: Aretha debuts this Sunday, March 21, on the National Geographic channel.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Soul legend Aretha Franklin gets the miniseries treatment starting Sunday when "Genius: Aretha" debuts on the National Geographic Channel. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the series works best when it lets Franklin's music do the talking.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GENIUS: ARETHA")

CYNTHIA ERIVO: (As Aretha Franklin, singing) Chain, chain, chain.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Watch star Cynthia Erivo moments into the start of "Genius: Aretha" and one thing is clear - they found the right woman for this job.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GENIUS: ARETHA")

ERIVO: (As Aretha Franklin, singing) Chain of fools.

DEGGANS: But recreating the tumultuous life of Aretha Franklin requires more than singing her classic hits with power and excitement. It also involves revisiting a life filled with trauma and challenges, as foreshadowed by journalists questioning Franklin at a press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GENIUS: ARETHA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) With your father and your husband by your side, I mean, who's calling the shots?

ERIVO: (As Aretha Franklin) I think you've all been reading a few too many gossip columns.

DEGGANS: "Genius: Aretha" is the story of one of the greatest singers in modern history finding her voice but not just as the music world's queen of soul. She also learns to free herself from the men in her life determined to dominate her, beginning with her father, renowned Baptist preacher and civil rights activist Reverend C.L. Franklin.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GENIUS: ARETHA")

COURTNEY B VANCE: (As C.L. Franklin) Some people only want to trust in theyselves (ph). Some people put all their trust in their bank account.

DEGGANS: Courtney B. Vance is magnetic as Franklin, a preacher who one character says, quote, "loves Sunday morning and Saturday night." In one scene, he's urging a tween-age Aretha to sing at a house party before Art Tatum and Dinah Washington. But the Reverend Franklin is also shown as a compulsive womanizer, confronted by his girlfriend, who Aretha had grown to love, hoping she would become her stepmom.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GENIUS: ARETHA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Some hussy tells me she's your sidepiece.

VANCE: (As C.L. Franklin) Oh, who the hell would say that?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You run around on me like a dog and now your hussies cut me in the street.

VANCE: (As C.L. Franklin) My past ain't got nothing to do with you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You had relations...

VANCE: (As C.L. Franklin) Shut your mouth. Shut your mouth, I said.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You got with...

DEGGANS: A fight over infidelity followed by violence - that's a cycle we see repeated with Aretha and her husband, Ted, after he ruins a recording session by fighting in the studio.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GENIUS: ARETHA")

ERIVO: (As Aretha Franklin) This was supposed to be my last chance - my last chance. And you ruined it.

MALCOLM BARRETT: (As Ted White) Stop it.

ERIVO: (As Aretha Franklin) You said that you loved me. You were supposed to be good as gold.

BARRETT: (As Ted White) You sound crazy. Now stop it.

DEGGANS: Despite crackling performances from Erivo, Vance and the actress who plays young Aretha, Shaian Jordan, "Genius: Aretha" too often unfolds like a predictable biopic burdened by ham-handed storytelling. It's the third installment of National Geographic's "Genius" anthology series but the first about a woman or a nonwhite person after seasons on Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso. So some may be disappointed in how it presents a succession of Black men who take advantage of Franklin, from her philandering father to her philandering husband to a man who left her pregnant at age 12. The best moments involve showing how Franklin transitioned from gospel star to soul diva. That includes a scene where producer, songwriter and performer Curtis Mayfield urges her to channel her tribulations into her vocals in the studio.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GENIUS: ARETHA")

MARQUE RICHARDSON: (As King Curtis) You move people. You take the heaviness of life and you make it beautiful. We need that.

DEGGANS: And then she did this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GENIUS: ARETHA")

ERIVO: (As Aretha Franklin, vocalizing).

DEGGANS: If more moments in "Genius: Aretha" matched this one, it would truly be the triumph Erivo and the queen of soul deserve.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GENIUS: ARETHA")

ERIVO: (As Aretha Franklin, singing) Many say that I'm too young...

DEGGANS: I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GENIUS: ARETHA")

ERIVO: (As Aretha Franklin, singing) ...To let you know just where I'm coming from. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.