March 19, 2021 at 8:34 am EDT | by Joey DiGuglielmo
New Aretha bioseries dramatizes singer’s turbulent life
Aretha, gay news, Washington Blade
Aretha Franklin (Cynthia Erivo) records her breakthrough album in Alabama in ‘Genius: Aretha.’ (Photo by Richard DuCree, courtesy National Geographic)

“Genius: Aretha,” a new seven-episode installment of National Geographic’s “Genius” series is a feast for the eyes and ears. With stellar performances, stunning cinematography, impressive period detail and rousing musical performances, there’s a lot here to like. 

The long-delayed return of the series follows previous seasons “Einstein” and “Picasso.” “Aretha” debuts Sunday, March 21 on the National Geographic channel at 9 p.m. Subsequent installments will be made available the next day. 

Pushed back from a May 2020 premiere due to COVID-induced production delays, the series stars Cynthia Erivo — who’s only been acting since 2011 and is already just an Oscar short of EGOT status — as adult Aretha while Shaian Jordan plays young Aretha in a stunning debut. 

Each episode pivots between “young” and “adult” Aretha. She works on her breakthrough 1967 Atlantic debut album “I Never Loved a Man” in first episode “Respect” while troublemaking husband Ted White (Malcolm Barrett) creates needless drama with the famed Muscle Shoals musicians. 

Young Aretha goes off with her father (Rev. C.L. Franklin, a famous pastor of his day, played by Courtney B. Vance) in second episode “Until the Right Thing Comes Along” on a summer gospel tour and comes home pregnant. 

One of the series’ best passages follows young Aretha and singer Sammie Bryant (Tonya Renee Banks) as they sneak out to a nightclub to see Sam Cooke and get busted by her dad on the way back. 

Episode six, “Amazing Grace,” is named after her double-platinum (the biggest seller Franklin ever had in a long career) gospel album and relays its — according to the series — turbulent creation. 

Everything, though, is turbulent in Franklin’s adult life in “Genius,” the effect of which, the series contends, is the loss of the singer’s mother at age 6 and a loving, nurturing but also overbearing and larger-than-life father. 

Franklin, who died in 2018, would undoubtedly hate this series. Although the singer longed to have her life story made into a biopic, she was famous for sugarcoating her past (her memoir “From These Roots” reads like a self-penned hagiography). Anyone who dared to challenge her recollections, such as David Ritz in his 2015 book “Respect: the Life of Aretha Franklin,” incurred her wrath. 

So that’s not a criticism. It’s sad to say, but it’s probably best that Franklin did not live to see this series or the upcoming biopic “Respect,” due for a summer release, in which Jennifer Hudson will star as the Queen of Soul. 

Much about the series works. The period detail is almost as good as “Mad Men.” Erivo, who does her own singing, is one of probably very few people on the planet who could both sing and act the demanding part and the supporting cast is uniformly strong. Vance is especially good as Rev. Franklin as is Omar J. Dorsey as Rev. James Cleveland, a towering — and closeted — gospel figure of the day. 

And the back and forth between child/adult-period Aretha also works better than you might think. The technique, a common one in the Netflix era, feels ping-pongy on some shows, but not here.

There are two problems and sadly they are significant. The writing and pacing by showrunner Suzan-Lori Parks, who won the Pulitzer in 2001 for her play “Topdog/Underdog,” often feels leaden and unrealistic. 

Although brief, there are several scenes that make no sense dramatically. 

Listening to another singer tackle “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” in the “Amazing Grace” episode, Cleveland, who’d mentored Franklin as a teen, says, “You can’t just outsing ‘em, you gotta outshine ‘em too,” to which Erivo’s Franklin gives a wry smile. 

It’s a bizarre non sequitur that feels like Parks flipped through a quote book and sprinkled in a down-homey proverb as an attempt at character development. Aretha has just pulled the plug on the project and we’re not told what she’s thinking or feeling. We know Cleveland, who already invested time on the arrangements, is hoping she’ll change her mind (which she does) but in the moment, the scene makes little sense.

In another scene, young Aretha is twirling around the room singing into hairbrushes with her sisters, Erma (Aubriana Davis) and Carolyn (Sydney Hunter). Grandmother Rachel (Pauletta Washington), who raised them, calls them for church. Her sisters leave and young ‘Re dissolves into tears. Nothing prompts it. We’re supposed to realize that music is Franklin’s only real joy. When it stops, she could collapse into tears at any moment. Despite solid execution, it feels forced and clunky. The pacing also drags at times. 

Erivo also fails to bring Franklin fully to life, but it’s more the fault of the writing. Her Aretha is an imperious bitch who usually doesn’t react to good news, scowls when anyone dares challenge her, rarely raises her voice except in song and seems utterly devoid of joy. 

One might argue that’s appropriate for that period in Franklin’s life. One of the main takeaways from Ritz’s book was there was the life Franklin wanted the public to think she had and the one she actually had. It’s obvious Parks and the team here did their homework. Artistic license is to be expected on a project like this. 

But despite the great cast, the gleaming cinematography and the show-stopping soundtrack, the actual dramatization is missing something. The real Aretha, it’s no secret, could be an imperious bitch. That’s all fair game. She was also, at times, her own saboteur. She was a complicated person. Parks and company do a noble job trying to peel back the layers, they just never quite get there. It may be an impossible job but a good biopic — especially at this luxurious length — should leave you with a tad more insight. 

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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