Watching Cynthia Erivo sing on screen is often a restorative experience. Here is a vocalist who, when performing, appears as if she’s doing exactly what she was put on this earth to do, and to behold that is to feel that the world is alright, at least for a few minutes. That’s a quality Erivo shares with Aretha Franklin, making the London-born multi-hyphenate a fantastic choice to play the late Queen of Soul in the eight-part Nat Geo miniseries Genius: Aretha.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog) shepherds this third iteration of the biographical anthology series. (Previous seasons focused on Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso.) Spanning three decades in the first seven episodes — with talented newcomer Shaian Jordan playing Franklin during her preteen-dom and early adolescence — Aretha is largely a portrait of the artist as a young woman attempting to free herself from the control of the men around her.
According to the series, the man Aretha would spend decades of her life trying to outrun is her domineering father Clarence (Courtney B. Vance), a famed pastor, civil rights leader and inveterate philanderer. (In the show’s memorable phrasing, he loves Saturday nights as much as he loves Sunday mornings.) It’s hard for Clarence to stand back and watch his favorite child’s attempts at a gospel-to-pop crossover go nowhere under the guidance of her inept husband-manager Ted (a slightly miscast Malcolm Barrett), who takes his wife’s punches and doles out some of his own. The most productive partnership that Aretha enjoys ends up being with music producer Jerry Wexler (an even more miscast David Cross), whose commercial savvy it finally takes to transform the Detroit native from struggling songstress to hit factory.
Franklin had a wildly eventful (and painful) youth, from her parents’ divorce when she was six and her mother Barbara’s premature death only a few years later to giving birth to her first child at age 12 (and her second just a couple of years later) and being pulled from school in the tenth grade to join the gospel circuit during segregation. In her mid-twenties, she’d suffer the death of her longtime friend, Martin Luther King, Jr. In other words, there’s no shortage of tales to tell about Franklin, whose life story is still relatively unknown to many. Aretha takes the opportunity to reintroduce its titular icon, especially to younger audiences, as a political activist, an industry trailblazer, even a glamourpuss fashion plate. (The period gowns by costume designer Jennifer Bryan are appropriately glitzy and thoughtful.) But the time-hopping drama, even when it shows us the most formative chapter of Franklin’s life, never really lets us in on who its subject was.
Like many child prodigies, Aretha spent more time around adults than fellow kids, especially once she started touring with her father as a preteen. In these Eisenhower-era scenes, it makes sense that many of the storylines involve things happening to Aretha, even if they frustratingly deprive us of insight into how the character felt about, say, her aborted education or her alarmingly early parenthood. But many of the decisions that Aretha makes as a 20- or 30-something are also difficult to understand, like why she sticks with Ted for so long. The characterization especially falters when Aretha cruelly snatches an opportunity from her younger sister Erma (Patrice Covington), whose nascent career can’t compare with that of the Queen of Soul. The too-neat aftermath of that lopsided sibling rivalry underscores how little we ultimately learn about the adult Aretha’s relationships to her sisters (the other played by Rebecca Naomi Jones), or any other woman for that matter, beyond ruthless competition.
Each episode features two or three numbers by Erivo, Jordan, or any number of guest stars playing contemporary luminaries like Lena Horne and Dinah Washington. Pretty much all of these — along with Clarence’s thunderous sermons — are energetic show-stoppers, which ensure that, at least within each episode, Aretha never flags. In the installments sent to critics, the show avoids covering Franklin’s most recognizable hits like “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman.” Erivo doesn’t exactly sound like Franklin, but her performances capture the technical monumentality and bursting expressiveness that made her predecessor a legend.
Erivo and Vance make for a powerhouse duo, mostly compensating for Barrett’s confusingly goofy demeanor and Cross’ inability to disappear into his role. But even they can’t make up for the fact that the repetitive dialogue and over-emphatic direction seem designed for viewers who are only half-watching. Add those flaws to stakes that aren’t always clear and stalled character development in the later episodes, and it feels increasingly like the spirit of the fiercely private singer has taken over the production.
“I am a princess in a fairy tale,” says Erivo’s Aretha, as much to convince herself as anybody else. That’s how this Aretha wanted to present herself to the world. And who could blame her, when her family tree bore so many secrets, and the gatekeepers in the music and media industries only wanted to profit off her? Aretha shows us that the performer and the person were two very different sides of the legend. We all know the former. The latter remains too much a mystery.
Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Courtney B. Vance, Malcolm Barrett, Patrice Covington, David Cross, Kimberly Hébert Gregory, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Shaian Jordan
Creator: Suzan-Lori Parks
Showrunner: Suzan-Lori Parks
Premieres Sunday, Mar. 21, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Nat Geo