From her soaring voice to her mesmerizing presence, Aretha Franklin was the definition of star power. So it only makes that a current set of biographers looking to put her life onscreen would bring in Academy Award nominated up-and-coming star Cynthia Erivo (Harriet, Widows, The Outsider), whose golden vocals seem to be leading her in an Aretha-esque direction. Developed by Noah Pink and Ken Biller, National Geographic’s series Genius dramatized the lives of Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso over its two initial seasons. For the third season, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who recently wrote the screenplay for The United States vs Billie Holiday, was brought on to script the story of Franklin’s life.
Parks makes some inelegant choices, interweaving black-and-white flashbacks to Franklin’s unstable churchy upbringing with the vibrant, colorful fashion of her adult fame. In the eight-hour, eight-part miniseries, she also covers the bigotry of the era; the moral hypocrisies of the men in Franklin’s life, such as her silver-tongued preacher father C.L. Franklin (Courtney B. Vance); and her difficult rise to fame amid her discordant personal life. Eye-dazzling costume work and show-stopping performances occur along the way. But beyond the glitz and the glamour, Parks’ Genius: Aretha is a shallow tribute to the soul legend that falters due to Erivo’s miscasting and Parks’ reedy writing.
The early going of Genius charts the arduous hurdles in Franklin’s career by planting the audience in the middle of her tumultuous I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You recording session at the famed Muscle Shoals recording studio. Earlier in life, Franklin struggled to discover her sound. She either performed blue soporific standards in the hopes of being the next Lena Horne, or sang Judy Garland-inspired showtunes. As an established performer, she pines for hit tracks, and producer Jerry Wexler (David Cross) of Atlantic Records takes her to Muscle Shoals to get them. While seeing the über-talented artist work to hone her craft should humize her to viewers, Parks obscures that by vocalizing Franklin’s desires as myopic dialogue.
That weakness reoccurs through the series, especially in episode four, as she becomes politically awakened by the civil-rights movement. Unfortunately, Parks silos Franklin’s growth into individual episodes, rather than teasing her maturation out over the span of the series. So when Franklin demands hits, when she expresses her political beliefs, when she stands up for herself — these beats feel mercurial and limited, rather than like the organic progress of someone coming into her own.
The scant, shallow writing also underdevelops how men like Franklin’s father and her husband Ted White commodified her talent for their individual enrichment. While Franklin is portrayed as merely a fame-hungry talent without depth, even less care is taken in composing the interpersonal dynamics in her life. Her wretched manager-husband (Malcolm Barrett), who also works as a pimp, exudes a desperate opportunism buttressed by a false sense of bravado. Though Barrett understands the dime-store personality of a man who sticks out in high society like a cheap suit on a discount rack, there’s never a sense for how these two disparate personalities fell in love.
Her two-timing father also hangs on her fame. He grooms her from an early age for stardom, yet it isn’t altogether clear why he’s so eager for her to find fame. The elder Franklin is a fun role. A mess of contradictions, he’s pious yet salacious, sweet but mean-spirited, persuasive yet ineffectual except with matters of money. The elder Franklin is a caricature, and to his detriment, Vance leans into the cartoonishness.
Erivo also rings false. For one, she looks nothing like the Queen of Soul. Despite Erivo’s fantastic vocals, she sounds nothing like Franklin, either singing or speaking — Franklin spoke with a clear Southern drawl that Erivo is incapable of replicating. Erivo also lacks the artist’s aura. Franklin, even in her timid jazz-standard days, emitted star power, a confidence reserved for the über-talented. It’s a presence that’s nearly impossible to copy. And while Erivo might dress herself in Franklin’s glistening blue-verdant gowns and resplendent lime-green dresses, she’s totally miscast.
The one component that works is the way Parks extrapolates Franklin’s childhood on the provocative gospel circuit. At age 12, while on the road with her father, Franklin witnessed his womanizing up close, and was introduced to alcohol, partying, and sexually predatory adults. Parks juxtaposes the lascivious lifestyle of gospel singers and preachers on Saturday nights with their holy sermons on Sunday morning to show the hypocrisy that dominated the church. As the series explores the rarely depicted seedy underbelly of itinerant preachers, Sanai Victoria captures how young Franklin idolized her father, even while knowing his moral shortcomings. Her expressive eyes and full-throated piety encapsulates the adolescent Franklin better than Erivo does the adult version.
Genius’ inconsistent focus muddies the waters even more. It’s unclear what story Parks wants to tell. She focuses on Franklin’s childhood, yet gives short shrift to her as a mother. Instead, she finds more interest in the circumstances around her pregnancies — the first of which comes when Franklin is just 12 years old — than in the life Franklin built for her children afterward. The series is decorated with enlivening musical numbers, but they aren’t of Franklin’s show-stopping hits like “Respect,” “Think,” or “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
Instead, Parks stages covers like “Border Song (Holy Moses)” and “Son of a Preacher Man.” The performances are astonishing, but they do little to advance the story or say anything about Franklin. The strong thematic elements that anchor the first half of the series also fade in the second half into a shallow grey puddle of stunted dialogue. Martin Luther King and Dinah Washington praise Franklin by saying, “You are a legend,” “You are talented,” and so forth without adding further dimension to her. Much like the men who commodify her, the writing rarely sees the singer beyond her talent.
The one character who treats the Queen of Soul as an autonomous human being is her post-Ted White boyfriend, the ironically cast T.I. as Ken Cunningham. Given how the series exposes the men in Franklin’s life as violent and unfaithful, even accusing a couple of pedophilia, it’s confusing to see T.I. as a loving saint, give the recent accusations that he drugged and sexually assaulted women. To be fair, these allegations are recent, and surfaced after filming was complete. The dissonance between the man and the character is still a hurdle. Parks’ Genius: Aretha is filled with obstacles and gullies, not just because of this unplanned disaster, but because the Queen of Soul is rendered as a pauper in her own story. Unfortunately, anyone looking for a tell-all tribute to her life will only find an elaborate game of dress-up here.
Genius: Aretha will premiere two episodes per day on National Geographic from March 21-24, with each episode arriving on Hulu the day after its premiere.