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Film Review On ‘Genius: Aretha’ By Kimberly Singleton

We all know Aretha Franklin’s amazing voice, but “Genius: Aretha” details the true genius of this phenomenal artist. In this eight-episode series, we see how she travels from a young prodigy to the Queen of Soul. Aretha orchestrates the sounds of her most popular songs through scenes in studio sessions. The challenges she experienced from a traumatic childhood to adulthood would have broken the average person. Condense these challenges in the person we knew as Aretha Franklin and experience her soulful, heartfelt oeuvre that blessed the world.

Aretha Franklin (foreground), played by Cynthia Erivo, rehearsing with backup singers (L to R) played by Kameelah Williams, Patrice Covington (as Erma Franklin) and Erika Jerry. (Credit: National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

The series tells Aretha’s story from birth to her iconic rise to fame. Flashbacks guide us through her life as a professional singer, and her early years singing in church and on her father’s gospel tour. It delves into Aretha’s relationship with her father, CL Franklin (Courtney B. Vance). CL’s infidelities, partying and drinking during the gospel tour left Aretha exposed and unprotected from the harsh realities of road life.

We see Aretha (Cynthia Erivo) deal with an abusive husband, struggle for creative control with record companies and use her celebrity status for the civil rights movement. She was a survivor.

Music is the highlight of the series and offers songs that blanket our African American history. From the gospel sound of Aretha’s early years in church to her chart-topping hits, fans will find themselves singing along with the spirited, signature songs. While some of the original music was used in the series, the actors who performed them were coached in the style and harmonies of the era to replicate the sound.

Small glimpses of women in Aretha’s life are shown, like sisters Erma (Patrice Covington) and Carolyn (Rebecca Naomi Jones) Franklin. The sisters did not reach Aretha’s heights but both were recording artists signed to labels. They sang background and collaborated with Aretha on many of her songs. We also see the role Ruth Bowen played in Aretha’s career. Ruth was the first African American female talent agent.

Cynthia Erivo (“Harriet”, “The Color Purple”) does a formidable job portraying Aretha Franklin. In her musical performances, Cynthia—herself an accomplished vocal artist—brought the essence of a true diva.

“Aretha” is the third installment of National Geographic’s “Genius” series and premieres March 21. Hulu will also air the series each night following the National Geographic broadcast with the entire eight episodes available on March 25th.


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