Genius: Aretha Gives a Glimpse of a Musical Prodigy

Aretha Franklin is and always will be the Queen of Soul, but the woman behind the well-deserved title was a bit of a mystery to me. Luckily, National Geographic continues its Genius Limited Series Anthology based on history-making innovators. This season, we get a look into the origins of Franklin and her musical genius. With eight episodes, and as the only authorized series about her life, there is a lot to cover in the 50 years of her career, chronicling her rise to stardom as a musical prodigy who taught herself how to play the piano.

Aretha Franklin (foreground), played by Cynthia Erivo, rehearsing with backup singers (L to R) played by Kameelah Williams, Patrice Covington (as Erma Franklin) and Erika Jerry. (Credit: National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

Starring Cynthia Erivo, who stole my heart in The Outsider, the series chronicles Aretha Franklin’s beginnings as a girl with her charismatic, womanizing father, C.L. Franklin (Courtney B. Vance), her early introduction to motherhood at the age of 12, her civil rights activism, and her struggle for independence as a woman in the music industry. The rivalry with her sister Carolyn (Rebecca Naomi Jones), her tumultuous marriage to Ted White (Malcolm Barrett) and the friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Ethan Henry) are all a part of who she was: a complicated and driven woman. But above all, she knew her talent and her worth. The most intriguing aspect of this series was the storied documentary Amazing Grace, finally released in 2018. I loved seeing the behind-the-scenes depiction of the control Franklin had over her brand.

Erivo captures the composure Franklin displayed as she sang effortlessly from her core while she constantly suppressed her inner turmoil. There was also an innocence she couldn’t hide, a trust that was constantly betrayed until she stood up for herself with her personal and professional relationships. Raised in the church, she respected her elders, especially Reverend James Cleveland (played with a fatherly warmth by look-alike Omar J. Dorsey), and relied on her faith to pull her through the worst times. Her innate talent coupled with gospel music was her saviour, and she often went back to it when she needed inspiration. Erivo also sings Franklin’s timeless songs with such precision and style that it feels like we’re hearing the original recordings.

In terms of characterization, all the actors were an interpretation of the real-life people they were portraying. Side-by-side, there could be a dispute about whether they resembled C.L. Franklin, Aretha or Jerry Wexler, Franklin’s longtime producer and collaborator played by David Cross, for instance, but what was ultimately captured was the essence of the person and the effect they had on Franklin’s life. There is an incredible production value with the sets and wardrobe, which adds to the show’s authenticity, transporting you to the era where soul and gospel were making waves in the music industry.

Alongside Erivo, Sanai Victoria was brilliant as the young Aretha or “Little Re” as she was called. Aretha’s siblings Cecil, Erma and Carolyn were played so well by Steve G. Norfleet, Patrice Covington and Jones. The AAFCA Roundtable had a chance to talk to the three actors, and the full interview can be seen here:

 

The series was also celebrated by a special event with spoken word poetry by the showrunner Suzan-Lori Parks, performances by Erivo, Covington and Jones, and other great surprises. The fanfare for Genius: Aretha is not lost on an intimate look at a true musical genius.

Genius: Aretha will air as “Double-Stacked Episodes” over four consecutive nights starting on Sunday, March 21 at 9/8 C on Nat Geo. Episodes will be available the next day on Hulu.

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