"The first season of National Geographic’s anthology series Genius centered around Albert Einstein. The second, Pablo Picasso," says Beatrice Loayza. "For the most part, these past iterations were formulaic melodramas anchored by magnetic leads (Geoffrey Rush and Antonio Banderas, respectively). The newest Aretha Franklin installment, starring Cynthia Erivo, isn’t terribly different in this regard. It’s essentially a soap opera masquerading as something vaguely more sophisticated due to the import of its subject and the pedigree of its cast. But it’s not a particularly good soap opera either, suffocated as it is by clunky, oversimplified attempts to capture the complexities of Franklin’s life and character. Its failures, given the singer’s recent death in 2018 and criticisms lodged against the show by members of her family, therefore feel particularly vexing. From beginning to end of the eight-part series, we’re thrown back and forth between Franklin’s childhood and the pivotal early years of her career between 1967 and the late 70s. The conceit is meant to show us how the singer’s relatively privileged, but still deeply traumatic childhood informed the way she would navigate her exploding fame. Fair enough, but these threads never exactly come together the way they should, and with so many clumsily handled moving parts any sense of urgency and tension feels muted and insincere."
Aretha feels bound, like the earlier Genius seasons, to give us the usual encyclopedia entry of life moments: "The high points are connected by overfamiliar biopic beats and historical moments conveyed through TV news broadcasts," says James Poniewozik. "The scripts and the direction hold the viewer’s hand, using melodramatic scoring and imagery and blunt dialogue...While the series has an animating sense of Franklin as an artist, she is a moving target as a person. Her determination could make her difficult, with colleagues and family, and Aretha faces this — when, for instance, she undercuts her sister Carolyn (Rebecca Naomi Jones), also an aspiring singer. But the series sometimes seems caught in the void created by Franklin’s careful image management; the central figure turns reserved and enigmatic at key moments."
While inconsistent overall, Genius: Aretha shines brightest when it gives Aretha time and space to take the stage: "Whenever Aretha broadens its scope outside the performer’s clear musical gifts, however, it succumbs to a baffling series of structural decisions that tangle the characters and storytelling in frustrating knots," says Caroline Framke. "The first episode flashes between her childhood and her being crowned — quite literally, as is maybe not well remembered — the Queen of Soul, setting up parallel narratives of a shy Black girl gaining agency through her talent alongside her doing the same as a Black woman challenging an oppressively white industry. But that’s not exactly what happens as the show continues. Instead, it flashes between Aretha’s past and present so frequently and with such little connective tissue that it often takes half a scene to remember where and when we are. (More so than the writing, the costuming, production design, hair and makeup, near impeccable across the board, root the narrative in a more immediately tangible history.) In a smaller but nevertheless revealing bit of aesthetic confusion, the pilot’s gambit of contrasting the past’s fraught moments in black and white with happier ones in full color continues in future episodes at random, with terrible and triumphant moments alike presented in both forms."
The musical performances are dazzling, but the dialogue is clunky: "The show’s musical elements, including several full-song performances in each hour, dazzle," says Judy Berman. "There are episodes that trace the making of legendary albums like Amazing Grace (the live gospel recording documented in a breathtaking 2018 film) and Young, Gifted and Black. Franklin’s voice was one of a kind, but Erivo—a brilliant performer who won an Emmy, a Tony and a Grammy for her work in Broadway’s The Color Purple, and is bound to EGOT any minute now—does its versatility justice. The visual details, from exquisite costumes to sets that precisely capture their respective places and times, are equally virtuosic. Less impressive are the directing and, in some instances, the dialogue. Franklin’s story is the stuff of high drama, and it merits the grand emotional register in which it’s told here. What’s disappointing are the gimmicky choices, like a black-and-white scene set at C.L.’s church that slowly transitions into color as Little Re’s singing electrifies the room, that can overpower the subtleties of masterly acting from Erivo, Vance and Jordan. Too many expository lines articulate sentiments that are already apparent in the performances."
Genius: Aretha features a lot of captivating moments, but it would've been better off delving into more of her life: "Even with eight episodes, the major events in Aretha’s life seem truncated, because the biopic miniseries is trying to cover so many bases," says David Lewis. "There are times when we don’t know exactly what’s driving Aretha, whether it’s her commitment to civil rights, her competitive nature with her sister (even after she has achieved Queen of Soul status) or her hit-and-miss love life. Indeed, it’s as if the producers were bound and determined to give Aretha the 'Respect' that she deserves, glossing over her drinking, weight problems, family turmoil and other issues that may have given us more insight into this remarkable woman. Respect is a good thing, of course, but a little of it can go a long way."
Genius: Aretha director Anthony Hemingway wanted to show "the cost of being a genius": Hemingway says "it’s never easy tackling a real person’s story, especially someone as decorated, celebrated and loved as The Queen of Soul. It requires a posture of sensitivity, compassion, care, humility, love, and a whole lot of research. Aretha was a musical prodigy, but she carried heavy personal burdens that she kept secret. We wanted to show how Aretha survived her burdens, thrived despite them, and alchemized them into the hits that brought people together. Her music was deepened by her connection to the struggles and triumphs of the Black experience from a young age. This is truly a character study about the real human being behind the razzle-dazzle of celebrity, and I wanted a human, personal and intimate visual experience. Aretha’s story is an example of how we can use our voice, our platform and resources to support and effect change."
Showrunner Suzan-Lori Parks is glad Aretha is expanding the meaning of the term genius: Parks describes Aretha Franklin “as someone who’s as paradigm-shifting as (Season 1 Genius Albert) Einstein, someone who creates works as sustainable as Einstein’s and (Season 2 Genius Pablo) Picasso’s works, but also someone who brought different kinds of people together for the greater good of the world.” Of Cynthia Erivo, she adds: “I wrote the script for her to plumb the depths of Aretha’s character, and tell the truths of Aretha Franklin in a loving and respectful way that would shine light on Black people’s lives and to allow us to recognize the genius in our lives, and to allow us to find a way to continue in difficult times. And Cynthia has done every bit of that, so beautifully.”
Erivo says she did not feel intimidated about playing one of the most important singers in history: “It was more like trepidation: ‘Am I going to be able to do this the right way?’ Like with Harriet, I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility. I could feel myself becoming more and more protective of her as we were going through it.” Producers decided early on that Erivo would use her own voice, a challenge she embraced: “I love finding out what else my voice can do. We used and enhanced what I already had.”