clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

‘Genius: Aretha’: A respectable bio with music as its heart and Cynthia Erivo as its soul

The rising star plays all the layers of the R&B queen in a flawed but fulfilling miniseries premiering Sunday on the National Geographic Channel.

“Genius: Aretha” really takes off in the performance scenes starring Cynthia Erivo in the title role.
National Geographic

It took just five years for Cynthia Erivo to become a superstar.

In that half decade, the Tony-, Grammy- and Emmy award-winning and Oscar-nominated actress has dazzled on Broadway in “The Color Purple,” delivered brilliant work in the HBO miniseries “The Outsider” and lit up the big screen in films such as “Bad Times at the El Royale,” “Widows” and “Harriet.”

Now, she knocks it out of the park as the legendary and larger-than-life Aretha Franklin in the eight-part dramatic series “Genius: Aretha,” dropping Sunday on Nat Geo with double-stacked episodes over four consecutive nights (with episodes available the next day on Hulu).

While the series occasionally lags due to an overabundance of flashback scenes and glosses over some of the more mercurial aspects of the Queen of Soul’s personality, there’s no denying Erivo’s beautifully layered performance, whether she’s quietly but firmly asserting herself in the white male-dominated world of popular music in the mid-20th century, becoming an influential voice for social change and racial justice or killing it in recording sessions and especially onstage.

It’s a great performance in a good series.

Just as Aretha Franklin was a master at covering works by everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Beatles to the Rolling Stones to Hank Williams, Erivo puts her own magnificent vocal spin on covering Aretha. It’s not an imitation so much as it’s an inspired interpretation of Franklin’s unique, angelic, soaring, spine-tingling, soulful vocal style. Erivo is so mesmerizing in the scenes set from the mid-1960s through the late 1970s that it’s something of a letdown when we return yet again to the flashback sequences detailing her troubled upbringing and miraculous rise.

It’s not that the back story isn’t worth telling or the performances fall short. It’s that the series isn’t as captivating and electric when Erivo is missing from the picture.

With the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan Lori-Parks as the show-runner, the third installment of the “Genius” series (the first two were about Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso) follows the classic showbiz biopic formula, alternating scenes from the star’s childhood with seminal moments under the bright lights.

There’s a nighttime soap opera vibe to the flashback scenes, as young Aretha (Shaian Jordan does a fine job of portraying Aretha as an adolescent and young teenager) grows up in a household filled with life and love and music — and pain and rage and sorrow.

Courtney B. Vance turns in his usual screen-commanding work as Aretha’s father Clarence, a renowned pastor who was friends with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and preached the word of God in fiery sermons but loved his Saturday nights as much as his Sunday mornings, as he so cavalierly puts it. Clarence’s philandering drove her mother out of the house, and he was so busy having his own good time on the road that he didn’t look after Aretha, who had her first child at 12 and another a few years later. As the series tells is, Aretha spent most of the rest of her life alternating estrangement from her father or bringing him back into the fold — and he wasn’t the only controlling man in her life.

Shaian Jordan plays the young Aretha, neglected by her philandering father Clarence (Courtney B. Vance).
National Geographic

“Aretha” spends far too much time in the past, taking two or three scenes to tell a part of the story when one scene would have sufficed.

The period-piece saga soars when we’re in the vibrant and tumultuous 1960s, complete with the colorful attire and revolutionary music of the times, as Aretha ascends to soul/pop stardom under the guidance of music producer Jerry Wexler (a slightly miscast David Cross), who can sometimes be smothering as he controls the business side of things but is ultimately a sympathetic figure who supports Aretha when she demands (a deserved) producer credit and when she uses her voice not only to sing to the heavens but also to protest injustice in the streets. The recording sessions, the TV guest appearances and the concert numbers are something to behold.

Curiously, the series spends relatively little time exploring Aretha’s battles with alcoholism and weight (there’s no “Raging Bull” type of transformation here, as Erivo remains slim throughout the series), her penchant for canceling shows for myriad reasons and her sometimes-strange performance choices, like when she would sing encores offstage as baffled audience members filed out, thinking they were hearing a recording.

And while the show does address Aretha’s feud with her younger sister Emma (Patrice Covington), a talented singer who couldn’t escape Aretha’s shadow, they patch things up in a hurried, forced fashion.

As an extended biopic, “Aretha” is serviceable and fairly thorough. A a showcase for one of the great stars of our time playing one of the greatest stars of all time, it’s a hit.

Editor’s Note: National Geographic’s “Genius: Aretha” series has partnered with Live Nation for a nationwide marquee takeover to honor Aretha Franklin. Through March 24, 20 marquees, including that of Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom (below), will display the message: “All Hail The Queen #GeniusAF 3.21.21.”

The marquee the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago.
The marquee the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago.
“Genius: Aretha” YouTube