Roush Review: Paying R-E-S-P-E-C-T to the ‘Genius’ of Aretha

Cynthia Erivo Genius Aretha Franklin Fame Studios
National Geographic/Richard DuCree

When Aretha Franklin sings, Genius soars.

Much credit goes to the brilliant casting of Cynthia Erivo, the TonyGrammyEmmy winning star of The Color Purple (Broadway’s 2015–17 revival). As the iconic Queen of Soul, who passed away in 2018, Erivo sustains a quiet strength in dramatic scenes that erupts into passionate fire when she’s onstage or in the recording studio, taking control of every detail.

“Our groove is urgent,” she advises her fellow musicians, and the best parts of the anthology’s third season — Genius earlier profiled Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso — depict Franklin’s journey to superstardom as she finds her sweet spot at the intersection of gospel, soul and pop.

When she connects with the producer who can take her to the next level, Atlantic’s nurturing Jerry Wexler (an appealing David Cross), she tells him, “I want to make hits.” His response: “You’ll get there when you realize you’re Aretha Franklin and nobody else.” Too many obvious moments like that are a giveaway that the writing, which frequently lapses into fawning biopic cliché, can’t measure up to her own genius. Airing over four nights, on the week that would have marked her 79th birthday, this often feels like an extra-long Lifetime movie.

The series toggles frequently between flashbacks (largely in black-and-white) of Aretha’s troubled childhood, including two unwed pregnancies in her teens while on the surprisingly rowdy Gospel Circuit, and her turbulent adult life with a jealous, abusive and controlling first husband, Ted White (Malcolm Barrett, Timeless). Her version of the Wrong Man Blues extends to her father, charismatic preacher C.L. Franklin, a relentless womanizer and heavy drinker played to the swaggering hilt by the sensational Courtney B. Vance (Lovecraft Country).

Genius Arethan Franklin Rehearsing Singing Cynthia Erivo

National Geographic/Richard DuCree

To its credit, Genius doesn’t present its legendary subject as a saint, especially when the ever-ambitious Aretha betrays one of her sisters by stealing a song to recharge her career in the disco era. But it’s impossible not to admire this civil-rights activist when she fights to get a producer credit on her breakthrough gospel album, literally raising her fist against the industry’s white male power structure.

Ultimately, this complicated history always comes back to the singing. As in real life, Aretha blows you away.

Genius: Aretha, Limited Series Premiere, Sunday-Wednesday, March 21–24, 9/8c, National Geographic