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World news – « Genius: Aretha » review: Cynthia Erivo dominates as the queen of the soul

Despite Erivo's captivating performance, "Genius: Aretha" is a complex story that is told chaotically.

After Aretha Franklin’s death in 2018, competing biographies of the Queen of Soul were announced: one hit the big screen and the other made up the third season of National Geographic’s « Genius » anthology series. Both biographies were delayed by a year due to the global pandemic, and now “Genius: Aretha” is the first release to set the tone for our view of Franklin as a performer, legend and woman.

The series begins with an adult Aretha (Cynthia Erivo) arriving at Muscle Shoals to work under acclaimed music producer Jerry Wexler (David Cross). She brought her husband Ted White (Malcolm Barrett) with her and almost immediately the dynamic between the two is evident. It also introduces one of the more frustrating things about Genius: Aretha: it’s a biography that is told with a jumbled chronology, and that narrative technique is distracting and confusing.

In this first episode, Aretha already has one Found semblance of success when she was crowned Queen of Soul, only for the series to go back and forth in time to introduce both Muscle Shoals and a younger Aretha, played by Shaian Jordan, who wants to go to her father’s church occur. Creator Suzan Lori-Parks most recently wrote the screenplay for The United States vs. Billie Holiday, and there are several similarities between the structure of this feature and this series. Each subsequent episode of « Genius: Aretha » takes place in a different time span of Aretha’s life, so the audience is aware of the loopholes, mainly due to Erivo’s hairstyles.


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It also creates a lot of confusion in the audience as the series goes on; There are massive gaps in time that, other than being a Franklin scholar, you are unaware of. If the goal is to introduce Franklin to a new legion of fans, or to show why she was so legendary, it is a disservice to them.

The emphasis on Franklin’s accomplishments as a singer is there but is shortened in one and arbitrary shape shown. At one point Cross’ Wexler talks about the magic and successes that Franklin broke with songs like « Think » and especially « Respect ». However, for some reason, no song is ever sung or mentioned by the end of the season. Also, since the series starts at Muscle Shoals, it means Franklin’s successes have already been cemented. But why should Wexler be needed at all?

What « Genius: Aretha » seems to be more interested in is Franklin’s family life and her desire to become an activist and producer of her music. Erivo is absolutely fascinating as Aretha Franklin, but it’s hard to tell if she’s great to play Franklin specifically – or just great. The coexistence of Erivo, who is already a strong singer and performer, becomes synonymous with Franklin. The overall theme seems to be that Franklin was a musical maven who was constantly torn between what she expected and what she wanted to be.

Erivo handles these two dichotomies perfectly. In her relationship with White, she wants to sell the belief that Aretha Franklin is living a fairy tale, but when a disastrous « reveal » lands in Time Magazine, Erivo shows Franklin’s disappointment with her family and the media, who would be content to stereotypes about her being black Immortalize woman. (The series that comes out after the interview with Meghan Markle feels incredibly timely.) In the second half of the season, Franklin decides to avoid the fairytale image and become more of an activist by developing a relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. builds up. (Ethan Henry) and begins an album of protest songs. All of this is fascinating, but it’s a shame it’s reserved for the back half of the season and usually gets one episode apiece.

Additionally, the emphasis is on Franklin and her family who are just as much, if not take up more of Franklin’s life story than her musical prowess. Her relationship with White anchors the first half of the season and then the series switches to her relationship with Ken Cunningham (played by T.I.) and actor Glynn Turman. Cunningham is portrayed as a man who encouraged Franklin to apply for producer credit on their albums, but it is never shown as great love – which is strange when Franklin does the music for « Sparkle » and the lyrics to it great remembering love for Cunningham that is never processed or returned after this scene.

Those moments when you feel like you’ve missed an episode become more common as more material becomes available. Aretha is reminded in one episode to « burn the candle on both ends » and display alcoholism, but this is never covered beyond the original episode, implying that it started and ended in a short time.

This is the most frustrating portrayal in the time of the young Ree on the street with her pastor father CL Franklin (Courtney B. Vance in its most extravagant form). A tremendous young talent, Jordan shows how much of Franklin’s life was determined by her time on the streets. She found her strength as a performer and at the same time did not want to be pigeonholed as a gospel singer. The problem, however, manifests itself in Franklin’s secrecy in real life, as he refuses to talk much about her childhood and especially about the two children she gave birth to from the age of 12. The series keeps Franklin’s wild party going at this point in her life with little discussion about being a kid.

Franklin was a complicated woman who went her own way. She demanded respect from everyone around her and even so, as the show shows, people still often let her do things that hurt those in her family. That hostility is best manifested in her complicated relationship with her sisters, including singers, but it’s a shame their relationship feels ill-defined in the flashbacks.

« Genius: Aretha » is a complex story that is told chaotically. Erivo is fascinating, but it requires additional on-screen text to fill in too many gaps that will be the focus of later episodes. While it’s the most cinematic of the “Genius” installments due to Erivo’s spectacular performance, it never loses the feeling that this is a series that requires an extra podcast to listen to.

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Ref: https://www.indiewire.com


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