2020 Preview: 'Genius: Aretha' Shows the Legendary Singer R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Ileane Rudolph
Preview National Geographic

The holiday season is over, but TV has some new gifts you'll never want to return. Settle in for 12 months of fan-favorite stars (Fran Drescher, Edie Falco), inspiring physical feats (the Olympics), new streaming services, and another must-see season of Outlander.

Genius is showing a true musical prodigy some R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

After honoring two accomplished European men — Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso — in its first two Genius installments, National Geographic explores the life of Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, the legendary American singer whose six-decade recording career has been the soundtrack for millions of lives the world over. One fan, Tony-, Grammy- and Emmy-winning actress-singer Cynthia Erivo (earning raves for her big-screen portrayal of American icon Harriet Tubman in Harriet), plays the diva in this eight-part series.

"Aretha," Erivo says, "is definitely one of my inspirations."

Franklin's story is remarkable indeed. "Everybody knows she was a gifted singer, but she was also an incredibly gifted pianist and arranger and was active in the Civil Rights Movement with Dr. Martin Luther King," explains executive producer Suzan-Lori Parks, a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright.

While the series celebrates many high points, the difficulties Franklin had to overcome, including abusive relationships and giving birth to two sons by the time she was 14, are not ignored. "To really know her genius," says Parks, "is to know the difficulties of her life."

Aretha Franklin (Ron Howard/Redferns)

The show opens in the '60s, just before Franklin travels to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record her breakout hit "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)." While Erivo portrays the adult singer over four decades, as in the previous Genius series, flashbacks featuring another actor (here, 12-year-old Sanai Victoria) cover the character before stardom. In this case, we follow the talented youngster on the gospel circuit with her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin (Emmy winner Courtney B. Vance).

Franklin's exhilarating music is amply sampled in the show. "When Cynthia sings in rehearsal," says an awed Parks, "everyone starts to cry." For her part, Erivo, who won her Tony starring in the musical version of The Color Purple, particularly loved re-creating Franklin's rendition of the heartbreaking "Ain't No Way."

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"The idea here," Erivo sums up, "is to show you how much Aretha was able to conquer to be the incredible person that we know today."

Genius: Aretha, Series Premiere, Spring, National Geographic

For More of Our 2020 Preview:

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