The most striking aspect of Genius: Aretha is the graceful performance by lead actress Cynthia Erivo.
Amid scenes of frenzied press, blazing family rows and demanding showbiz work, Aretha Franklin remains cool and softly-spoken. But she unleashes her soul in lyric and voice.
Genius: Aretha is the third instalment of National Geographic’s anthology drama which previously dramatised Einstein (Geoffrey Rush) and Picasso (Antonia Banderas). I’ve never particularly associated any singer with the word ‘genius,’ most of her biggest hits were not self-penned. But there is no doubting her vocal supremacy and ability to transport audiences with stunning performances.
Episode 1 of Genius undertakes a challenging roadmap of timelines: 1) being crowned as the Queen of Soul, in Chicago 1967 as her marriage was failing; 2) her early years as the gospel-singing daughter of a Baptist preacher in Detroit 3) recording sessions in Alabama, trying to find her new sound. Juggling so many story elements seems to be the format for Genius but it does make things very confusing for viewers, despite some use of black and white flashback photography.
Set in 1953 Sanai Victoria stars as ‘Little Re’ the talented young daughter of Rev. CL Franklin (Courtney B. Vance), a successful Baptist preacher who commands testifyin’ services and throws parties with the likes of singer Diana Washington (Stacey Sargeant) and music producer Teddy White (Malcolm Barrett) around the family piano. ‘Little Re’ has her own voice and attracts the attention of adults, but her father’s infidelity will lead to early heartache too.
By the time we have fast-forwarded to 1967 and a trip to Alabama for studio recordings, an adult Aretha (Cynthia Erivo) has married Teddy and is treated with respect -no pun intended- even by white men in the South. At Muscle Shoals FAME studio, music producer Jerry Wexler (David Cross) is hoping to find a new sound with Franklin, but short-tempered Teddy’s jealousies threaten to derail those plans.
“I’ll just shut up and sing,” she notes, dryly.
Meanwhile back home in Buffalo, New York, Aretha’s sisters Erma (Patrice Covington) and Carolyn (Rebecca Naomi Jones) are a rock, as musical collaborators, backing vocalists and aunts to her young children. They even suggest the famed “sock it to me” line…
While Einstein may have created over blackboards and Picasso over a canvas, for Aretha it’s over a piano surrounded by her fellow musicians.
It’s in the studio sessions that Franklin’s talent is given freedom to explore. She initially struggles to connect with her white session musos, but will later take control and dig deep to express rhythms, sounds, urban beats and stirring R&B which reflect the fights she has lived and a fire unleashed.
Civil rights underpin the story, championed by her father, and witnessed through the eyes of Young Re. Her crowning as the Queen of Soul will serve as a triumph for Chicago’s black community, but it belies personal struggles underway behind the spotlight.
Genius: Aretha is keen to impress Franklin’s strength as a woman, overcoming the flaws of men in her life, against the backdrop of civil rights. It does this entertainingly, even if you get the feeling it has blurred the timelines for dramatic effect.
As Aretha, Cynthia Erivo delivers with dignity, and supplies the vocals admirably (Franklin’s sound is unmistakable, to be fair). Bringing light to the dramatic scenes, we get a strong sense of how Franklin endured.
“I am a princess in a fairytale,” she insists.
The first chapter is titled ‘Respect’ but the miniseries will reportedly not include a performance of said song, because those song rights are aligned with an upcoming biopic of the same name starring Jennifer Hudson).
Frustrations, including the messy timeline, notwithstanding Genius: Aretha is a respectful homage.
Genius: Aretha airs double episodes 7:30pm Mondays & Tuesdays on National Geographic.