Review: Aretha Franklin’s Genius: Aretha Speaks Loudest When She Sings.
Cynthia Erivo is a force to be reckoned with in a biopic that shines brightest as it argues for the Queen of Soul as a creative force.
Aretha Franklin (Cynthia Erivo) sits at the piano during a recording session in 1967 and performs a chord that none of her studio musicians remember. One of them describes it as “funky.” It is, however, “celestial.” The earth and the sky. Both the body and the soul are essential.
Creating something fresh out of nothing more than air waves is a brilliant description of genius. It also clarifies the concept suggested in National Geographic’s bio-first anthology’s two seasons, which centered on Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso. These were not exactly out-of-the-box options for the “Think Different” poster stars, and “Genius,” despite its title, plodded in that mushy middle ground where dutiful biography meets mediocre storytelling.
Franklin’s selection for Season 3 makes a point, not just because it deviates from the series’ Great Man trend by focusing on a Black, female famous entertainer. It’s also a continuation of Franklin’s own long-term goal: to be recognised not only as a fiery actor, but also as a thoughtful translator, artist, and producer.
So “Genius: Aretha,” which premieres on Sunday and will run for eight episodes over four nights, has a point of contention and a chance to shake up the format. It does — on occasion.
The latest “Genius” spends the majority of its runtime in standard music biopic territory: exposition, childhood traumas, and historical checkpoints. But, thanks to Erivo’s incandescent success and its insight into Franklin’s method, it socks it to us when it finds its groove.
Suzan-Lori Parks (a Pulitzer Prize winner for her play “Topdog/Underdog”), the showrunner, jumps back and forth in time. Franklin’s career is woven together by a single thread (from her 1960s breakthrough to the 1970s, in the seven episodes screened for critics). Little Re (a radiant Shaian Jordan) is the daughter of C.L. Franklin (Courtney B. Vance), a high-profile pastor in Detroit, who is discovering her voice, literally and figuratively.
The elder Franklin was a civil-rights activist and gospel-caravan preacher who, according to legend, preferred Saturday night to Sunday morning. Little Re and the older Queen of Soul are both affected by the breakdown of his marriage due to his infidelities. Vance acknowledges and encourages his daughter’s talent early on as an artist in his own right — he sees the rolling-thunder musicality in his sermons — (He still appears to be interested in her professional life even into her adulthood.)
The Black church’s indispensability to American culture — it gave our songs music and lyrics — is a recurring theme in “Aretha.” (It’d be a nice pairing with PBS’s recent “The Black Church.”) Franklin’s determination to preserve her freedom and vision among the men in her life, first C.L., then her first husband and boss, Ted White (Malcolm Barrett), who is prone to jealous fits and aggressive tantrums, is another recurrent theme.
Those expecting to hear the hits were disappointed to learn that “Aretha” did not own the rights to “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” However, this moves the season’s attention to more surprising, artistically revealing choices, such as her discovering the gospel sway in Elton John’s “Border Song.”
It’s no wonder that Erivo, who won Grammys and Tonys for his work on “The Color Purple,” can imitate Franklin’s ferocious vocals. Her output, however, is more than just a copy. It’s about the character’s passion and integrity, her independence and power, and the way music transports her.
Franklin must project faith and preserve her reputation in an industry that will happily tell her who she is. She establishes a long, often tense relationship with producer Jerry Wexler, played by an oddly cast David Cross, after a frustrating attempt to break out as a jazz singer. (Whether you like it or not, you can’t help but see and hear Cross’s “Arrested Development” character in his demeanor and speech; although the show brings the funk, he brings the Fünke.)
Not only for the excellently crafted songs, but also for the series’ rendering of her art, the most fascinating parts of “Aretha” are on stage and in the studio. Franklin, as depicted in “Aretha,” knows who she is.
She’s a singer who hasn’t undergone formal training yet has a keen producer’s ear. (For the ineffable sound it gives the instrument, she has someone return an empty pizza box to the top of her piano during one session.)
She is Black, and her music and politics — both of which are rooted in her early church background — become largely focused on her race. (Her interactions with family friend Martin Luther King Jr., played by Ethan Henry, are reminiscent of the debates about the responsibilities of the Black artist in “One Night in Miami.”)
All of these elements come together in the sixth episode, which is about the recording of her 1972 live album, “Amazing Grace,” at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, which was recorded by Sydney Pollack for a film that would last nearly half a century. The episode ties together the threads of “Aretha,” much as the performance did with Franklin’s past and personality, her personal vision, and community consciousness. It might have been a good film or the centerpiece of a more oriented sequence.
But, like the previous seasons of “Genius,” “Aretha” feels obliged to give us the regular encyclopedia entry of life moments. Overused biopic beats and historical events transmitted by TV news reports link the high points. The scripts and directing use melodramatic scoring and imagery, as well as blunt dialogue, to take the audience’s hand. (“You’ll get there when you know you’re Aretha Franklin and nobody else,” Wexler says.)
Franklin as an artist is animated in the series, but she is a moving target as a human. Her ambition can make her difficult to work with, both at work and at home, as “Aretha” learns as she undercuts her sister Carolyn (Rebecca Naomi Jones), who is also a singer. However, the series is sometimes trapped in the vacuum provided by Franklin’s meticulous image management; at crucial moments, the central character becomes reserved and mysterious.
This results in a clear portrait of Franklin’s art inside a hazier bio-series of her personality, which is a trade-off but preferable to the alternative. After all, the franchise’s name is “Genius,” and Parks’ story convincingly shows why Franklin deserves to be compared to Einstein and Picasso. Even if we don’t fully grasp what R-E-S-P-E-C-T means to her, “Aretha” is a lively attempt to give her artistry some R-E-S-P-E-C-T.