Starting tonight on National Geographic is the Anthony Hemingway directed, four-day 8-episode, televised event GENIUS: ARETHA, which focuses on the early career of the legendary Aretha Franklin. As its name suggests, the mini-series highlights the genius artistry and creativity of the woman nicknamed and appropriately revered as the “Queen of Soul.”
I will start by saying it’s really unfortunate this series is surrounded by a bit of controversy. First, the Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Suzan-Lori Parks produced show’s announcement fell within the shadows of the long-awaited biopic “Respect” starring Jennifer Hudson – whom the Queen of Soul hand-picked to portray her.
Because of that project, Genius was unable to acquire rights to several of Aretha’s hits – most notably the female empowerment and civil rights anthem Respect.
Then, of course, there’s the continual debate regarding non-American actors of African descent portraying African-American historical figures. Of course this isn’t the first time lead actor Cynthia Erivo has faced this particular criticism – as she portrayed the titular character in 2019’s “Harriet,” about the life of freedom fighter Harriet Tubman – not to mention the issues surrounding her “ghetto” comments.
And most recently is the revelation that Franklin’s family was neither consulted nor approve of the National Geographic project.
All that being said, I think “Genius: Aretha” is satisfactory in its presentation of the singer’s brilliance, her determination to succeed and obtain rightful credit for her work in a male dominated and company focused industry, navigating her social and familial relationships, and doing it all while attempting to maintain a very private profile. And I say this after only receiving 7 episodes and not having seen the finale.
And though I think Erivo was solid – episode one, dressing room scene, one tear in right eye while wiping makeup from bruised left (take note) – and she finessed the sometimes comic, graceful, and humble yet fierce demeanors that Franklin often interchangeably displayed in interviews, and her singing is technically great, I don’t believe she nailed all of the featured songs, several that include the late singer’s mind-blowing riffs and runs.
Now allow me a brief segue here, because anyone who reads this blog and follows the site knows that the 1976 “Sparkle” is my favorite movie – with its soundtrack composed and produced by the late Curtis Mayfield and Aretha Franklin as the featured vocalist. So, I was anticipating Erivo singing any of the tunes from that album (yes, I said album and am showing my age).
But let’s just say you can tell how much of a challenge emulating Franklin and her vocal acrobatics was for the lead actress by those songs – especially her version of “Something He Can Feel.”
Yet, I thought Erivo shined best in her interpretations of “Save Me” and “Border Song (Holy Moses).” And the Amazing Grace live recording scene when her father C. L. Franklin (portrayed by a dynamic Courtney B. Vance) attends is vocally stellar and highly emotional.
The mini-series also focuses not only Franklin’s early and mid-career, but a great deal of her musical development, which included mentoring from and working with several high-profile celebrities like Clara Ward, Martin Luther King Jr., and James Cleveland – with Omar Dorsey (Queen Sugar) turning in a remarkable performance of the latter.
And actor Shaian Jordan is certainly one whose name you should remember. She shines as the young Franklin, affectionately called “Little Re,” and steals almost every scene she’s in.
Although I wasn’t crazy about the non-linear approach the project took with its storytelling, and the extensive use of flashbacks, I think it’s still solid, entertaining and will reveal a lot of new information for those who aren’t as knowledgeable about both Aretha and C. L. Franklin’s lives.
I rate it 3 out of 5 on the MMTrometer.
GENIUS: ARETHA premieres tonight on National Geographic at 9pm ET/ 8 CT. Episodes will be available the next day on Hulu, culminating in a celebration of Aretha Franklin’s birthday, with all eight episodes available to stream by Thursday, March 25.
Until next thought, Thomasena