tv review

Did Genius: Aretha Really Need to Exist?

A its best, the NatGeo series starring Cynthia Erivo as the Queen of Soul herself is a gripping, generational family drama. But it never stops getting in its own way. Photo: Courtesy of National Geographic

The Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin was a complex figure, a titan of American music whose voice could wring emotion from even the coldest hearts, whose body of work exemplified and entangled many strains of Black music, touching on jazz, blues, gospel, soul, rock, and disco, and creating brilliant combinations of all of the above. The string of albums between 1967’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You and 1972’s Amazing Grace broke boundaries and set records. Franklin remains on the shortlist of the most-awarded artists in Grammy history, and her gobsmacking 52 top-ten placements on Billboard’s long-running R&B singles chart is matched only by James Brown and Drake. Aretha was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a no-brainer for a performer whose genius as a singer and an interpreter of songs also came with natural gifts as a songwriter and producer. If you covered her song, you worried; if she covered yours, she blew you out of the water. In her 20s, Franklin made Otis Redding’s “Respect” her own. In her 70s, she made Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” look as carefree and easy as hopscotch.

Aretha loved to sing, but she didn’t necessarily enjoy the politics of celebrity. Famously, she was never much for chitchat, preferring to let her formidable instrument do much of the talking. At her peak, Aretha was prone to blowing off public engagements when things got too hot in her personal life, taking a hit to her reputation in the music business, and she seemed to hate explaining herself. “Pain is sometimes a private matter,” Franklin wrote in her 1999 autobiography Aretha: From These Roots, recalling the death of her mother in her youth. This has made the business of documenting the singer’s life a prickly one. For years, she fought the release of Sydney Pollack’s 1972 Amazing Grace concert film, in spite of the spellbinding footage he’d captured. Franklin first started talking about a biopic in 2008, floating Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson in the lead role but insinuating that nothing would come to fruition without her approval; the result, this fall’s Respect, wouldn’t begin filming until 2019. Green-lighting an Aretha season of NatGeo’s Genius series after her death in 2018 was something of a shock, and the family asked the audience to boycott. After seeing the finished product — whose finale aired Wednesday night, seemingly timed to Franklin’s birthday, March 25 — you get why.

Genius: Aretha isn’t awful, but it’s very messy. Cynthia Erivo is a fantastic actress and singer, and in the titular role of Aretha, she makes the hardest part — mimicking one of America’s greatest voices — seem manageable. But she doesn’t necessarily feel like Aretha. (Barring Luke James’s turn as Glynn Turman, Franklin’s second husband, and Omar Dorsey’s unnerving accuracy as gospel giant James Cleveland, no one much passes for the historical figure they’re playing. The most unfortunate bit of casting is T.I., not a month after sex-trafficking allegations, in the role of Franklin’s tour manager and lover Ken Cunningham, who always clocks as T.I.) Erivo’s deft balance of bluntness, stoicism, and volcanic emotion as Franklin navigates conflicting personal and professional lives is admirable, and Courtney B. Vance’s portrayal of Aretha’s father, legendary activist and gospel’s “Million Dollar Voice” C.L. Franklin, visualizes the many complexities of a figure whose impact on the Black church is profound, but whose faults added weight to his family’s already heavy load. Genius supposes Aretha’s blending of spiritual and emotional interests in her art is inherited from her father, learned from following him around on the surprisingly lustful gospel touring circuit in the mid-’50s as it became apparent that the child possessed a once-in-a-lifetime gift. By day, young Ree is miming the moves of singer Clara Ward of gospel’s Famous Ward Singers; by night, she’s ducking C.L. at parties where both the father and the daughter try and fail to conceal their appetites for breaking the rules. You could argue Genius is as much C.L.’s story as Aretha’s, and it’s important to set up the relationships with controlling men the singer would spend much of her early career bucking. If it’s not C.L. telling her what to do, it’s Ted White, her first husband and manager. If it’s not Ted, it’s one of the many music-industry men who get flustered when a woman flexes her talent and power. At its best, Genius is a gripping, generational family drama about the pitfalls of putting one’s own needs ahead of those of friends and family, and fame’s unseen costs. But the series never stops getting in its own way.

In exploring the conflicting interests pulling Aretha in different directions through her career, Genius takes liberties in its portrayals of her and the many figures in her inner circle, and you begin to grasp why the family isn’t pleased. C.L. is made out to be a master manipulator who’ll stop at nothing to get his daughter on a path to the top of the charts, but who is a philanderer deeply concerned with gossip, your archetypal Evangelical equivocator, a family man with a secret love child he fathered with a 12-year-old churchgoer, and a spirited Sunday morning speaker also known for his Saturday night proclivities. Some of the moves of Genius’s version of the man run counter to several accounts given by his children, though. He is seen attempting to pull young Ree out of school to pursue music at one point, but in author David Ritz’s 2014 biography Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, her sister Carolyn says no one in the family cared about the children’s schooling as much as their father. When Ree gets pregnant at 16, C.L. embarrasses her in front of the entire church choir and chastises Reverend Cleveland for knowing and not telling, though in real life, Aretha says C.L. never shamed her for being a young mother. When C.L. is left off the guest list on the first night of the Amazing Grace concerts, it’s framed as a spiteful, freeing gesture, when in Franklin’s book, she said it was an innocent mistake rectified when she called and personally invited him to appear on the second night of filming. This makes the scene where she is surprised to see him in the audience a confusing touch and an unnecessary speed bump in an episode that is otherwise a beautiful ode to Sydney Pollack’s directorial style and Franklin’s gospel chops. Genius also frames her first pregnancy at 12 as a consequence of her excursions on tour, when the father of her first son was a neighborhood boyfriend back in Detroit.

Genius’s Ted White is a bumbling manager and a worse husband, but his wildest moments, like the time he was investigated for allegedly shooting Sam Cooke’s brother in Franklin’s home, aren’t there. (Actor Malcolm Barrett plays Ted’s desperation and rage spirals believably, though making a point not to consult the still-living White before taking the role is frankly baffling.) The 1967 incident where Aretha was injured at a show is ludicrously distorted: In the film, she somehow breaks her arm in three places just tripping while tipsy, when in real life she claims to have plunged eight feet off an arena stage. Elsewhere, Genius has time to suggest Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tried to initiate an affair with the singer but not to show her famous performance of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” King’s favorite song, at his 1968 funeral. That year, she’s seen recording “Son of a Preacher Man,” the Dusty Springfield hit originally written for Aretha, setting up drama between the Franklin sisters, since older sister Erma covered it first. This timeline is impossible, since Aretha didn’t cut “Preacher Man” until she realized she’d whiffed on a hit when Dusty’s version blew up in 1969, the year Erma’s version came out. A scene set in 1970 is soundtracked by Sly and the Family Stone’s “Family Affair,” a recording that wouldn’t exist until 1971; Aretha is seen recording “Call Me” in 1967, but the session didn’t happen until 1969. An early 1967 studio scene mentions Marvel’s Black Panther, a hero you’d only know if you’d seen the three issues of Fantastic Four he’d been in up until then. Chronological quirks are exacerbated by the way Genius jumps through time, zipping back and forth through the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, in order to juxtapose Aretha’s childhood and adulthood issues with temperamental men in the first six episodes, then breezing through the late ’70s and various points in the ’80s and ’90s in the last two.

If you don’t know Aretha’s story, it’s easy to blink and miss a chyron and get lost. If you’re familiar with the finer points of the singer’s life and career, you wonder why Genius gins up drama but leaves documented chaos out. We see Aretha becoming a problem for her label in the late ’60s as she steps into her activism, having seen police mistreating a fan. Inexplicably, we don’t see the 1969 disorderly conduct arrest where she allegedly gave police hell after a roadside accident. “Preacher Man” comes up in several episodes to walk us up to major conflict between sisters in 1976 — after Curtis Mayfield tries to get Carolyn to sing the songs he wrote for Sparkle, but Aretha, needing a hit in the fallow years of her tenure at Atlantic, edges her sister out of the gig, revealing a meanness otherwise reserved for her male tormentors — but we don’t get to hear “Respect” or “Think,” two of the first songs that come up when you think of Aretha Franklin. It’s times like these that Genius feels a little unsanctioned; you quickly come to surmise there’s no “Respect” because the film Respect has the rights. You wonder why this thing was conceptualized and pushed out after her death when there was already a biopic in the works that had been given the late legend’s blessing. What Genius: Aretha does best is identify what drives people, what drives them toward greatness and toward self-destruction, and how a person can be both brilliant and troubled, loved but deeply misunderstood. When it handles this business delicately, Genius: Aretha is a joy. But as much as it misses the mark, with another Aretha story already in the can, it’s worth asking why this one needed to exist at all.

Did Genius: Aretha Really Need to Exist?