National Geographic has been recently trying their hand in competing with the big networks and streaming services by aiding the help of the great Ron Howard, who serves as an executive producer. The mega filmmaker and cable channel have stepped up their programming and gave us their first original scripted series “Mars”. With the following year in 2017, having stepped it up another notch by premiering the ambitious series “Genius”, with Ron Howard having once again serve as an executive producer. The recurring series focuses on a different artist and innovator with each new season. The first season of “Genius” was dedicated to physicist Albert Einstein, portrayed by Oscar nominee Geoffrey Rush and the second season to painter Pablo Picasso, played by Antonio Banderas.
While we’ve seen Cynthia Erivo portray Harriet Tubman in a stellar Oscar nominated performance in 2019’s “Harriet”. The Tony, Grammy and Emmy award winner has now completely transformed herself into the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. The eight part dramatic series that runs an hour each episode had originally aired over four consecutive nights on Nat Geo, is now available to binge watch on Hulu in it’s entirety.
To say that Aretha Franklin was one of the greatest American artists of all time is an understatement. Her multi-octave voice moved millions around the world during an unrivaled career that spanned six decades, that garnered the singer and songwriter every achievement and honor imaginable. “Genius: Aretha” is brought to you by show runner and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, of the recent Golden Globes winner “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”. The Aretha biopic series, follows the classic showbiz biopic formula with alternating scenes from the star’s childhood to seminal moments under the bright lights.
“Genius: Aretha” begins the night Franklin was crowned “The Queen of Soul” after a performance in Chicago in 1967. The show then dabbles in a constant back and forth between that moment onwards and different times in Aretha’s childhood. I know biopics have followed this structure for quite some time and prefer it compared to the conventional narration that is told in chronological order. However in “Genius: Aretha”, it’s many backwards and forwards jumps in time can be disorienting to some viewers.
Unfortunately this is where the series lags the most, due to the overabundance of flashback scenes that glosses over some of the more mercurial aspects of the Queen of Soul’s personality. It’s not that the back story isn’t worth telling or the fact that the performances fall short. It’s just not as captivating and electric when Cynthia Erivo is missing from the picture. In it’s flashbacks, Courtney B. Vance is the standout and turns in his usual screen commanding work as Aretha’s father Clarence. Her father was a renowned “promiscuous” gospel preacher, providing far more than sermons at his gatherings. That in fact, where orgies were so common that fellow singer Ray Charles labelled the church a “sex circus”.
While he loved his Saturday nights as much as his Sunday mornings. Clarence’s philandering drove Aretha’s mother out of the house and he was so busy having his own good time on the road that he didn’t bother to look after Aretha, who had her first child at 12 years old and another only a few years later. As the series unfolds, it’s Aretha who has spent most of her life alternating estrangement from her father or bringing him back into the fold, as he wouldn’t be the only controlling man in her life.
The period-piece saga shines when we’re taking a journey through the vibrant and tumultuous era of the 1960s and 70s, complete with the colorful attire, revolutionary music of the times and Aretha at the peak of her career. Aretha then ascends to a soul and pop stardom under the guidance of music producer Jerry Wexler (played by David Cross), who can be smothering as he controls the business side of things. Wexler is also a sympathetic figure who supports Aretha when she demands (a deserved) producer credit. Or when she uses her voice to sing the word of God, but also in protesting injustice in the streets. The recording sessions, the TV guest appearances and the concert numbers are something to behold here.
Even if the all too often time leaps are hard to follow, “Genius: Aretha” has two strengths in Cynthia Erivo’s powerful performance and within the show’s soundtrack. Just as Aretha was masterful at covering works by everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Beatles to the Rolling Stones to Hank Williams. Cynthia Erivo puts her own magnificent and real vocal talents in covering Aretha’s tunes, by giving us an inspired interpretation of Franklin’s unique, angelic and soulful vocal style. Erivo is so mesmerizing in her sequences set between the mid 1960s through the late 1970s.
There’s no denying Erivo’s performance is beautifully layered, whether she’s asserting herself in the white male dominated world of music, becoming an influential voice for social change and racial justice or by killing it in the recording studio and onstage. Erivo knocks it out of the park once again and after her performance as Aretha and Harriet Tubman, she proves that she is one of this generations best actresses.
“Genius: Aretha” is trying to tell us Franklin was a flawed person, without fully going there. She had a fierce and at times even disloyal competitiveness with her two sisters (who were also singers), which is highlighted in hour six when she wins a role in the movie “Sparkle” that was supposed to go to her sister. The series patches things up in a hurried and forced fashion between the sisters. “Genius” also spends little time exploring Aretha’s battles with alcoholism and weight (with Erivo remaining slim throughout the series). Also not explored is her penchant for canceling shows for a myriad of reasons or like when she would sing encores offstage as baffled audience members walked out, thinking they were hearing a recording.
But “Genius: Aretha” also fails to define the character as a mother; a side to her that is barely a subplot. While her romantic interests and husbands come and go with a tad more screen presence, it’s still not fully developed. It’s a shame that all of these events weren’t explored more, especially given the span of eight hours that they had to work with.
But not dwelling on events, helps to tackle so many different moments in Aretha’s life, instead of just focusing on a specific period of time for too long and causing it to drag out. The three combined filmmakers (Billie Woodruff, Nema Barnette and Anthony Hemingway) form each episode to be self-contained and hold a specific plot. Leaving room for important issues like Aretha’s involvement with the civil rights movement after meeting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Aretha’s time spent recording her protest album “Young, Gifted and Black”; the time spent recording her gospel album “Amazing Grace”.
This biopic is no “Ray” or “La Bamba”, which holds so much more development and dramatic depths. Instead “Genius: Aretha” brings our attention simply for the music, the vibrant production design, the colorful and accurate outfits of the 1960s and ‘70s. While I did learn a few bits about Aretha, it still wasn’t enough to regard it as one of the best music biopics out there. If anything it will make you want to lay down your vinyl and listen to the Queen of Soul’s music.
Other than giving you the urge to spin a few hours of Aretha’s hits. “Genius” is a showcase for one of the great talents of our time playing one of the greatest talents of all time. It’s a great performance from Cynthia Erivo in a good, but not great biopic. While Erivo certainly sets the bar high, we will just have to wait and see if Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson can embody Aretha. Hopefully her film can give us a more detailed look into the icons life, when her biopic called “Respect” arrives in theaters and streaming on August 13th.
GRADE: ★★★☆☆ (3 out of 5)