Genius: Aretha is the third season of a National Geographic series about geniuses. The first two seasons were about Picasso and Einstein. Now we have Aretha Franklin. The series isn’t a traditional biopic. It’s more about the music than anything else. After streaming on the National Geographic channel, it’s now on Hulu.
Genius: Aretha leaves out a lot. It’s almost secretive in what it reveals. It jumps around in time through Aretha’s life. Aretha Franklin is played by Cynthia Erivo, who is a musical genius in her own right. She sings in her own voice, but makes it feel like Aretha.
Cynthia Erivo is British. I hadn’t heard of her before Harriet, where she also sang impressively. With the much admired American singer Jennifer Hudson playing Aretha in the upcoming Respect, it was a bold move to put a British actress in this part.
Aretha’s family called her Re. Little Re (Shaian Jordan) began singing in her father’s church at a young age. Her father, C.L. Franklin was mostly played by Courtney B. Vance except a few scenes with a young C.L. played by Edwin Hodge.
The information about Aretha’s family life was scattered and sketchy at best. It was established early that her father was a womanizer and a drunkard. Her mother Barbara Franklin (Antonique Smith) left him because of it. The children stayed behind with their father, who was always concerned with his image. He used Aretha all her life to bring glory and fame to himself.
The Franklin family is not happy with this series and say it misrepresents them.
Aretha could hear something and sing it back note for note immediately after. That’s how she ended up singing opera at the Grammys 15 minutes after hearing Pavarotti’s rehearsal tapes. That’s how she picked up so many musical styles over her career.
Aretha was ambitious and interested in fame and success. She wanted the hit singles, the gold records, the Grammys. She wanted to be in charge of her own career and her own music. She fought for her autonomy with her father, her first husband Ted White (Malcolm Barrett), her second husband actor Glynn Turman (Luke James), and with her producers Jerry Wexler (David Cross) and Clive Davis (Christopher Redman). She won most of those battles.
The series spent time on Aretha’s activism during the civil rights movement. It looked into her personal life, but not deeply. She had her first child at the age of 12 and she always had a man around, but this side of her wasn’t explored fully.
Her sisters, Carolyn Franklin (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and Erma Franklin (Patrice Covington) were also excellent singers. They sang backup for Aretha all her life. Aretha wasn’t above stealing songs and opportunities from her sisters. Things would be difficult for a while, and then she would be forgiven. The narrative from everyone in this incredibly talented family was that Aretha was the queen. One way or another, they all served her career and her image.
What this series did well was the music. Every episode focused on the music. Writing songs, explaining her ideas to a band, learning songs and styles, performances, recording sessions and singing in church formed the center of every episode. Sometimes that felt a little frustrating when compared with a traditional biographical tale, but for a series that wanted to emphasize Aretha’s genius, it made sense.
Here’s a teaser for the episode called “Chain of Fools.”
How much of this series is true and accurate? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know it shows Aretha’s genius.