Metro Weekly

“Genius: Aretha” review: A marvelous Cynthia Erivo channels the towering musical genius

"Genius: Aretha" does right by the Queen of Soul, illuminating the private tribulations behind her artistic evolution

Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin
Cynthia Erivo — Photo: National Geographic/Richard DuCree

Cynthia Erivo sounds splendid wailing songs made famous by the late Queen of Soul in Genius: Aretha (★★★☆☆), season three of National Geographic’s acclaimed anthology series. Attacking the role and steep vocal challenge with tenacity, Erivo — an Emmy, Grammy, and Tony winner in her own right — channels the power and prowess of the towering musical genius. And in her complicated characterization, she reveals a strong, determined Black woman who’s heavily influenced for good and ill by the men in her life, but always unmistakably self-directed.

As great as Erivo is, though, and as marvelous as she sings, the series serves to remind that Aretha Franklin remains untouchable as a combination of singer, musician, songwriter, activist, and cultural icon. The perceived wisdom, also advanced in this series, created and executive produced by Suzan-Lori Parks, is that it took Franklin years of tinkering with genre, style, and delivery to pin down her untouchable sound. She always had the talent, voice, and drive, but it took several albums, recording everything from blues and jazz to pop standards, for the artist, signed as a teenager to Columbia Records, to actually sound like the Queen of Soul.

In a savvy move, Parks — a busy biographer of late, having also scripted Lee Daniels’ more impressionistic The United States vs. Billie Holiday — kicks off Franklin’s journey at the propitious moment that Aretha first earns her crown. Really, Chicago fans bestow the title “Queen of Soul” upon her after a 1967 concert where a crown is placed upon her head. The moment points the story and Franklin’s career in the direction the singer is set to embark upon with a new record deal at Atlantic, working with producer Jerry Wexler (David Cross).

Courtney B. Vance, Shaian Jordan in Genius: Aretha
Courtney B. Vance, Shaian Jordan — Photo: National Geographic/Richard DuCree

Aretha’s regal moment also highlights her unyielding desire to paint a picture-perfect public image of herself as princess of the family Franklin, led by her famous but flawed father, Reverend C.L. Franklin (Courtney B. Vance). Doting on his clearly gifted third child, the reverend teaches “Little Re” all he knows about life, religion, and the recording business, but teaches her too much about disappointment. Little Re, beautifully portrayed by newcomer Shaian Jordan and sung by Bri’anna Harper, bears witness to the kind of womanizing and violence that later she’ll experience herself as wife to her longtime manager Ted White (Malcolm Barrett).

In the four episodes reviewed here, depicting events in her life up to 1969, Aretha’s relationships with those three men — Ted White, Reverend Franklin, and Jerry Wexler — define the patterns she’ll need to understand, absorb, or overcome. The female characters, by contrast, provide mere backup chorus for Aretha, literally in the case of Franklin’s talented sisters Erma (Patrice Covington) and Carolyn (Rebecca Naomi Jones), barely distinct from each other as written.

Not until we meet Aretha’s mother, Barbara (a fine Antonique Smith), who died when Aretha was 10, does the series explore another woman with the same depth and incisiveness that it applies to its main subject. With Barbara’s touching story in episode four, juxtaposed against Erivo as Aretha rocking through sizzling takes on “Son of a Preacher Man” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” the series starts to hit its peak, just as Aretha’s on the cusp of hers.

Genius: Aretha airs March 21-24 on NatGeo, and will be available for streaming on Disney+. Visit www.nationalgeographic.com/tv.

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André Hereford covers arts and entertainment for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at ahereford@metroweekly.com. Follow him on Twitter at @here4andre.

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