We’ve gone nearly an entire year without any major live music performances. It’s been hard, hasn’t it? There’s no salve quite like a burst of piano keys all at once, a silky voice stirring into a room, a steady drumbeat to parallel one’s heartbeat. Enter National Geographic’s near perfectly-timed Genius: Aretha, which offers a front-row seat to the life and art of Aretha Franklin, a role that’s executed exquisitely by Cynthia Erivo. Erivo lends her own vocals to the role, adding to the wonderfully intimate, genuine feeling to every single performance. We may not have concerts, but now we have Aretha.
Aretha is the third installment in National Geographic’s Genius series, which has already delved into the lives of Albert Einstein (Geoffrey Rush) and Pablo Picasso (Antonio Banderas). Brilliant performances levied the first two seasons, which were otherwise noted as being clunky and a bit dry. While it’s true that Erivo’s performance stands out as the shining star of Genius: Aretha, the biopic series may have finally caught its stride by adding in a euphoric musical aspect. Brimming with Franklin’s sonorous epiphanies, rapturous celebrations, and other hidden moments from the artist’s life, this section of the anthology lends itself to die-hard fans of the musician as much as it does to those merely in search of the stories behind her songs.
The narrative traverses through nearly every decade of Franklin’s life, unafraid to bounce 30 years into the future or walk 10 years back in just one episode. It’s a detail that’s easy to take for granted; the other Genius series hop around, so this one should be no different, right? Well, neither Einstein nor Picasso were the Queen of Soul, meaning neither had jaw-dropping attire quite like Franklin did. Perhaps it’s a small detail in a show loaded with larger topics, but it is notable because there’s clear dedication in shifting Erivo out of a glittery green two-piece and into heavenly feathers. These costuming changes really represent the show’s ability to jump through time with ease. Following a jumpy timeline can be a difficult feat, but it never is with Aretha.
The show opens on one of these flashback/flash-forward sequences, tossing us into the paralleled lives of young Aretha Franklin (Shaian Jordan) and old (or “older” —think mid-20s) Aretha Franklin (Erivo). As a young Franklin grows besotted by singing and musical performance, the older version similarly dips her toe into the music industry, crescendoing until the young one hits exactly the right note and then, the matured Franklin finally lands on huge stages. But there are demons to battle along the way: rough times with her parents, competition with her sisters, and a pregnancy at age 12. Still, as Aretha layers in track after track, it’s clear that through her strife, music was harmoniously ever-present in the artist’s life.
It must be reiterated: Erivo is phenomenal. She rolls with her own voice, cascading into the smooth rhythms with such ease. It takes a certain level of respect (pun not intended) of Franklin’s artistry to pull off covers of her music, but Erivo rises to the challenge, embracing the songs and Franklin’s story with humility and honor. Watching her tackle the role is undoubtedly the best part of the show—thankfully, there’s hardly a scene without her presence. Some of her highest points come in the middle of the series, as Franklin discovers her voice as an activist for the Black community with her 1972 release of “Young, Gifted and Black.” These moments are crucial, and Erivo just gets it right.
Shaian Jordan, who plays Franklin as a girl (dubbed “Little Re”) deserves just as much star power as Erivo herself. Not only does she embody the spirit of a young Franklin, but she also introduces a handful of emotions and struggles that foreshadow themes carried through the entire series. To be a brilliant young actor is one thing, but to portray one specific role in harmony with another performers is an entirely different feat. An excellent singer and actor, Jordan goes above and beyond.
Unfortunately, though, the lifelong story can feel incredibly long with almost too much rich history to consume—especially if it’s streamed all in one sitting. New episodes of the series will drop back-to-back on consecutive nights—an only slightly-paced released. Basically: if you’re searching for something to binge-watch all at once, avoid this sprawling biopic. Even though Erivo and her two protégés are fantastic, the show tends to droop when it comes to the non-musical storylines. Understanding Franklin’s familial relationships are key to her music and her life, but the layers upon layers of context can make some segments drag. This is a dilemma most biopics face, however, and Aretha makes up for it with a bevy of whip-smart performers and breathtaking melodic sequences.
The entire series is worth a watch, especially for any committed fans of Franklin’s brilliance. Even those who aren’t all that familiar with her history will be blown out of the water by Erivo’s vocals and stage presence. There are multiple sequences reminiscent of Steve McQueen’s recent Lovers Rock: rooms corner-to-corner with people, all buzzing with happiness, each swaying or dancing, paired with wonderful music. Come for Erivo’s lovely rendition of Franklin and the intimate details in her life; stay for the rapturous musical goodness that follows.
Genius: Aretha’s four-night television event premieres Sunday, March 21st with back-to-back episodes available the following day on Hulu.
Fletcher Peters is a New York-based journalist whose writing has appeared in Decider, Jezebel, and Film School Rejects, among other spots. You can follow her on Twitter @fietcherpeters gossiping about rom-coms, TV, and the latest celebrity drama.
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