TV’s ‘Genius: Aretha’ is a Must-See Biopic of the Late Queen of Soul

Through Hulu I have discovered the National Geographic series Genius: Aretha which chronicles the life and career of iconic singer Aretha Franklin. I am floored by the brilliance of this biopic limited series.

This is apparently the third season for the Genius series, with each season focusing on an individual great talent. The first season focused on Albert Einstein with Geoffrey Rush playing the adult genius and Johnny Flynn playing the character in his younger years. The second season focused on Pablo Picasso and starred Antonio Banderas as the title character. I may be late to the party, but I’m glad I made it.

Genius: Aretha stars Cynthia Erivo as the late singer who passed away in 2018. Erivo was previously nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Harriet Tubman in the 2019 biopic Harriet. She has also won an Emmy, a Grammy, a Drama Desk, and a Tony. For the childhood and teen years, Shaian Jordan plays Aretha.

Both Erivo and Jordan did their own singing for the limited series. The fact that they pull it off seamlessly is damn impressive given that they are playing the woman that Rolling Stone Magazine named “The Greatest Singer of All Time.”

While I always admired Franklin’s undeniable vocal talents, I didn’t know a lot about her life before watching this series. For instance, I didn’t know that Aretha had her first child at the age of 12 and had her second child at the age of 14.

I was also fascinated to learn that Franklin was a magnificent piano player. Having only really been exposed to her in the 1980s and after, I only knew of her for her disco and post-disco hits. I had never really heard the brilliance of her early soul recordings. Thanks to the stellar songs on the Genius: Aretha soundtrack, I’m looking forward to getting my hands on some of her recordings from the 1960s. Hooray for the public library where we can access such treasures free of charge!

As an interesting and enjoyable feature of this television limited series, the producers at times use actual clips of the real Franklin performing. Erivo is similar enough in appearance to Franklin to make this work. Hair and make-up crews did an amazing job adding weight and wrinkles to the character as she ages.

Aretha had an interesting relationship with her father, the evangelical preacher C.L. Franklin. Played dynamically by the uber talented Courtney B. Vance, the preacher was at times the most understanding and supportive parent you could imagine. Other times, though, Aretha’s father is portrayed as an egotistical self-absorbed pillar of sin. Vance makes both versions of C.L. Franklin believable, as well as the tension between he and his daughter because of their mutual strong wills.

Malcolm Barrett is also a standout in a very good cast. Barrett plays Ted White, Aretha’s first husband and manager. Barrett is a kept man, who likes the perks of his wife bringing home the money, but not the shame of being baggage.

David Cross does an excellent job as longtime Aretha producer Jerry Wexler. Among the hits Wexler produced for Aretha include her timeless classic “Respect.”

Also worth noting is the performance of Rebecca Naomi Jones as Aretha’s sister Carolyn Franklin. Carolyn was always in the background while Aretha took the spotlight. Sometimes Aretha’s lack of concern for her sister Carolyn’s feelings is heartbreaking.

The eight-episode series sends the viewer through a whole range of emotions. The producers don’t candy coat Aretha’s life. She has her flaws. All the characters have their flaws. It makes for great entertainment.

I encourage you to give Genius: Aretha a chance. If you like soul music and entertainment biopics, you’ll probably love this series as much as I do. The story takes us through the important points in Aretha’s life and gives us a clear vision of the Queen of Soul.

Peace. Love. Trust.

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