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Aretha Franklin Shines In, And Despite, The New Miniseries, 'Genius: Aretha'

Courtney B. Vance, left, as C.L. Franklin, with Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin, in a scene from the miniseries <em>Genius: Aretha </em>set at The New Temple Missionary Baptist Church.
Richard DuCree
National Geographic/Richard DuCree
Courtney B. Vance, left, as C.L. Franklin, with Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin, in a scene from the miniseries Genius: Aretha set at The New Temple Missionary Baptist Church.

Soul legend Aretha Franklin received the television-miniseries treatment with Genius: Aretha, a project that works best when it lets her music do the talking.

Cynthia Erivo plays Aretha who, moments into the start of Genius, makes it clear that they found the right woman for this job. Recreating the tumultuous life of Aretha Franklin requires more, however, than just singing her classic hits with power and excitement. It requires revisiting a life filled with trauma and challenges, as foreshadowed by journalists questioning Franklin on who "calls the shots," her father or her husband, at a press conference (to which she responds, "I think you've all been reading a few too many gossip columns").

She learns to free herself from the men in her life determined to dominate her, beginning with her father, renowned Baptist preacher and civil rights activist the Rev. C.L. Franklin. Courtney B. Vance is magnetic as the elder Franklin, a preacher who, one character says, "loved Sunday morning and Saturday night." In one scene, he's urging a tween-age Aretha to sing at a house party before Art Tatum and Dinah Washington. But the Rev. Franklin is also shown as a compulsive womanizer, confronted by his girlfriend — who Aretha had grown to love, hoping she would become her stepmom.

A fight over infidelity followed by violence is a cycle we see repeated with Aretha and her husband Ted, after he ruins a recording session by fighting in the studio. "You were supposed to be good as gold," Aretha says.

Despite crackling performances from Erivo, Vance and the actress who plays young Aretha, Shaian Jordan, Genius: Aretha too often unfolds like a predictable biopic burdened by ham-handed storytelling.

It's the third installment of National Geographic's Genius anthology series, but the first about a woman or a non-white person, following seasons on Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso. So, some may be disappointed in how it presents a succession of Black men who take advantage of Franklin, from her philandering father, to her philandering husband, to a man who left her pregnant at age 12.

The best moments involve showing how Franklin transitioned from gospel star to soul diva. That includes a scene where producer, songwriter and performer Curtis Mayfield urges her to channel her tribulations into her vocals in the studio: "You move people; you take the heaviness of life and you make it beautiful. We need that."

Aretha sings again, but this time pouring herself out over a swaying track called "Something He Can Feel." If more moments in Genius: Aretha matched this one, it would truly be the triumph Erivo and the Queen of Soul deserve.

Genius: Aretha debuts this Sunday, March 21, on the National Geographic channel.

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.