'Genius: Aretha': The Queen of Soul Gets Some Small-Screen Respect
15th March 2021

Among the the music biopic’s many tropes is the inevitable recording-session scene, where we watch a recreation of the artist at work — or, if the subject is a band, see them quarrel and throw drum sticks at each other. Rare, though, are the sequences where you feel as if you’re truly witnessing art emerge — which is precisely what happens about three-quarters of the way through Genius: Aretha, the eight-part mini-series that debuts on the National Geographic channel on March 21st.

It’s 1976, and Franklin (played by Cynthia Erivo) is hunkered down in a studio with Curtis Mayfield (Marque Richardson). She’s looking for a career reboot but is struggling to reach peak Aretha vocal heights, and Mayfield gently scolds her for holding back. He asks her to try again and punches up the backing track for “Something He Can Feel,” one of the songs on their collaborative soundtrack for the movie Sparkle. This time, as the music builds, Erivo practically becomes Aretha before our eyes. Her manicured fingernails framing her face, she glides into the melody, soon overtaking it and stretching notes — the art of melisma, before it was overused by many subsequent pop stars. For a fleeting second, it feels as if you watching a documentary, not a dramatization. It’s also a moment that, unfortunately, doesn’t quite happen enough over the course of Genius’ eight hours.

This new season of NatGeo’s Genius series, this one centered on the singer, shouldn’t be confused with Respect, the feature film biopic scheduled to arrive this summer that stars Jennifer Hudson (and was approved by Franklin before her death in 2018). Her estate is thanked in the credits, but the family also seems to be keeping its distance from the project. But Genius: Aretha has a formidable pedigree of its own. Erivo (Harriet) never takes anything lightly and has singing chops; the creative force behind this season devoted to Franklin is Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks,who also scripted the recent The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Among its executive producers are Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, as well as Franklin’s later-years champion and label boss, Clive Davis. Although you won’t see it in a theater but on a network known more for nature docs, the series demands its own, yes, respect.

Even though it’s broken into one-hour episodes, the thought of an eight-hour dramatization of Franklin’s life might seem like a little too much Ree. But let’s cut the show some slack: Spanning decades and encompassing changes in pop music and the culture, Franklin’s life was pretty epic. So why not go all out chronicling how the daughter of a preacher man became the Queen of Soul?

To further hammer home its ambitions —  and to avoid the strictly chronological approach of most biopics — Parks devised a clever structure. Each episode alternates two story lines, one in the present and the other in Franklin’s childhood or teen years. The flashback portions, most shot in elegant black and white, showcase the young Aretha (played by newcomer Shaian Jordan, who truly sparkles) and her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin (Courtney B. Vance). In an ever-evolving series of wigs and wardrobes as the times change, Erivo inhabits the Aretha of the Sixties and Seventies.

At their best, the alternating-structure plan lends new context to Aretha’s life. Episode six, for instance, focuses on the making of Amazing Grace, her 1972 gospel album. As played by Vance, the married C.L. is a borderline-bully charmer who always has an eye on other women and his bank account — you can practically smell the oily after-shave on him — and he’s constantly inserting himself into his daughter’s life and career. (It implies he pulled her out of high school to pursue her career, and he’s seen firing her early mentor, the Rev. James Cleveland.) That dynamic underscores the unease Aretha feels later in the episode, when he shows up unexpectedly at the church where Amazing Grace is being recorded. In the Amazing Grace documentary that was recently unearthed, the real-life footage of Aretha looking ill at ease as her father takes over the podium for a speech now makes more sense.

To its credit, Genius: Aretha doesn’t shy away from its subject’s own troubled side. It captures her upfront career ambitions, down to the way she derailed the career of her sister, Cynthia (Rebecca Naomi Jones) —  who was supposed to sing all those Sparkle songs before Aretha swooped in and took over the project. (The series recreates a scene from David Ritz’s Franklin bio Respect in which a drunk and angry Cynthia comes at her sister with a fireplace poker.) That same Sparkle incident, Genius also implies, derails her relationship with Ken Cunningham, portrayed as an especially stable and calming presence in her life.

The mere fact that almost entire episodes are devoted to the making of a record like Sparkle or the Amazing Grace shows that, to its credit, the series never shortchanges the music portion of Franklin’s life. Along with that Mayfield scene, it also recreates, with seeming accuracy, her church-choir debut, her tentative years at Columbia Records, her bumpy but ultimately breakthrough first Atlantic Records session with producer Jerry Wexler, and other high points. David Cross plays the notoriously gruff Wexler as perhaps too much of a noogy mensch, but Genius never forgets why we cared about Franklin in the first place; scenes of her and her sisters practicing harmonies around a piano inter Detroit home feel natural and welcome.

That said, many of Franklin’s earliest hits — “Respect,” “Think,” “A Natural Woman” — aren’t here, neither sung by Erivo nor heard on the soundtrack. The network claims that’s because some of those songs didn’t fit the storylines. One suspects that its competing movie may have scarfed up some of those rights. But whatever the reason, the absence of many of Franklin’s signature songs is jarring. Characters make references to those particular hits and how impactful or huge they were. But when we see Erivo onstage in the Sixties, she’s singing the Stones’ “Satisfaction” or, to signify her growing social consciousness, Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Franklin did record those two songs, but they’re hardly the ones we associate with her and that period in her life.

But Genius: Aretha is burdened by more than just music rights or song selection. Throughout, she’s regularly portrayed as being suppressed or undermined by men: her father, first husband and manager Ted White; Columbia producer John Hammond (who wants to turn her into a jazz singer); even Wexler, seen as questioning her move into “protest songs” (his words) or making a gospel record. (In Ritz’s book, Wexler claims it was his idea for her to make Amazing Grace and Franklin was “reluctant.” She claimed the opposite).

Even if those portraits feel largely accurate, these constant battles make the grownup Aretha of Genius feel dour and put-upon. For all her issues, difficulties, and proud diva moves, the Queen of Soul had a zest for life, music, fame, along with one of the most life-affirming smiles in pop. Hints of that joy and energy emerge from time to time. As young Ree, Jordan deeply conveys the sense of release and rapture that young Ree found in singing in church (even as her expressive eyes communicate her inner pain at becoming pregnant at 12 and then watching her parents’ marriage collapse), and some of Erivo’s performances, like a studio recreation of “Rock Steady,” pulse with life.

No one doubts C.L. Franklin’s sometimes overbearing role in his daughter’s life, but the way in which he appears in every episode, whether a flashback or present time, threatens to turn Genius into an examination of his life and he and his daughter’s dynamic. (At press time, only the first seven episodes, the last ending in 1979, were available for review — which means the eighth and final hour, spanning nearly 40 years, will have to do some pretty heavy lifting.) The recreation of her fiery Fillmore West show in 1971, where she won over a counterculture crowd she wasn’t accustomed to entertaining, feels especially made-for-TV low-rent; it doesn’t have the world-conquering feel it should.

There and elsewhere, Erivo does a more than credible job of imitating Franklin’s voice, and producer Raphael Saadiq recreates the sounds of those records, too. But the ongoing unhappiness shown in adult Aretha threatens to turn her into someone you’d hardly want to spend too much time with, which is the exact opposite of the impression Franklin always gave. Some of the politically activated lines she’s hobbled with — “I don’t divide people, I unite them” or “Social injustice just makes me wanna holler” —also feel a bit too heavy-handed.

During that Curtis Mayfield scene, the producer prods her into digger deeper into herself in the studio by saying, “You take the heaviness of life and make it beautiful.” That was all too true, but sometimes the heaviness of life overtakes Genius: Aretha too much for its — and Aretha’s — own good.

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