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"Genius: Aretha" miniseries aims to "serve the queen"

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

Posted: Sunday, March 21, 2021

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It doesn't take a genius to figure out why Suzan-Lori Parks is such a great fit to helm National Geographic's "Genius: Aretha," miniseries.

With credentials that include being the first black woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1999's "Topdog/Underdog") and an array of well-received stage productions and screenplays — including "Native Son" and "The United States vs. Billie Holiday" — Parks is unquestionably well-versed and experienced in the same barrier-breaking world Aretha Franklin traversed as the Queen of Soul.

And on top of all that, she's has been a big fan since she was young.

"Like so many people, I, of course, knew her music," the Kentucky-born Parks, 57, says by phone. "When I was a kid, my parents and aunties played her music in the house. I learned to do the funky chicken to Aretha Franklin songs. My aunties taught me that 'Rock Steady' really was a protest song. We would dance the funky chicken with our fists in the air, listening to 'Rock Steady.'

"But I didn't know much about (Franklin's) life, so just to dive in and show the viewer not only moments of her life but moments of her genius ... to show Aretha Franklin in the context of her world, was a real kind of honor."

"Genius: Aretha" premieres Sunday, March 21, via National Geographic, its eight episodes spread over four nights and concluding with a Hulu marathon on Thursday, March 25, which would have been Franklin’s 79th birthday. The series offers an insightful overview of the longtime Detroit and Bloomfield Hills resident's life and innumberable career achievements, from her youth as a featured singer at New Bethel Baptist Church — where her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was the iconic minister — up to her triumphant performance of "Nessun Dorma" at the 1998 Grammy Awards, filling in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti.

Using the series tag as its title and shifting between Shaian Jordan's young Franklin, mostly in black and white, and Cynthia Erivo's adult Franklin in color, "Genius: Aretha" explores the relationship between Franklin's life events, artistry and image — triumphs, tragedies and all points in between. It doesn't shirk from her complex relationships with family, society and industry, or from her young motherhood (starting at age 12), insecurities and occasional struggles with alcohol.

But everything, according to Parks, is designed to illustrate how a devoted daughter of the church grew to become one of the world's most iconic performers, deemed the top singer of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.

"I just wanted the world to see her as this whole person, and show the viewer not only moments of her life but moments of her genius, where she did create those paradigm-shifting sounds and ways of working," says Parks, who Franklin had approached to create a stage musical about her life, which never came to fruition. "She had so many facets to her personality, not only Queen of Soul, brilliant singer and paradigm shifter, but also mother and aunt and sister and friend.

"I wanted to show how shy little 'Ree became the Queen of Soul, how maybe the struggles she endured as a child informed the strength that we see in her adulthood. We didn't shy away from telling the truth, but we were telling it honestly and respectfully. My goal and the goal of the whole series is to put respect on Aretha's name."


National Geographic's "Genius" series had already devoted seasons to Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, and Co-Executive Producer Brian Grazer said during a recent virtual panel discussion at the South By Southwest festival that "I don't think we even contemplated a musical artist" among the "many, many hundreds of people" considered for the third season. But the proverbial lightbulb went on after Franklin's death in August 2018, at age 76.

"I flipped out," Grazer, 69, remembered. "I thought, 'Omigod, this is it!' It didn't take any genius on my part. It was so obvious that we should be doing Aretha Franklin ... probably the most esteemed and accomplished musical artist, but beyond that, she lived in a time that was really very culturally complicated, and at the same time she had a very complicated home life.

"To navigate her way through this intense obstacle course of people (and) civil rights issues, it just seems like some kind of genius has to be pulled — and that's essentially what our show is."

Franklin is also the subject of an upcoming feature film — "Respect," due out Aug. 13 with Jennifer Hudson portraying Franklin. That's generated a bit more attention, but Grazer is confident Franklin's story is better served in the longform of "Genius: Aretha."

"This is a story that should be much more than a movie," he said. "For her to be that accomplished and navigate the family agendas and how it all plays out ... that's why it's eight hours, not two hours."

Parks, who was at the Sundance Film Festival with "Native Son" when she got the call from Grazer, jumped at the chance to not only be a showrunner for the first time but also to tell a story whose imprint goes beyond even Franklin's generational accomplishments.

"I said, 'Wow, this is amazing. The 'Genius' franchise is going to include a Black American woman. We're gonna get to talk about Aretha Franklin through the lens of genius.' That felt like it was heaven sent," Parks says. "So suddenly I thought, 'Wow, this is an opportunity for the whole world to see Black American female genius,' and it's so on point and on time for what we're going through right now.

"So I was like, 'We're gonna do this. We're gonna do my sister justice.' We were really serving The Queen — that was my mantra. When we'd say 'Cut!' on the set, I'd start cheering, 'We served The Queen!'"


"Genius: Aretha" was filmed in Atlanta, though Parks came to Detroit for research. The first five episodes were filmed before the COVID-19 pandemic halted shooting and delayed the series from its planned fall premiere. It resumed during late September under strict safety protocols, with occasional shutdowns that lasted up to five days, finally wrapping around mid-November.

Clive Davis, Franklin's longtime label boss and trusted friend and producer, served as an executive producer, and Parks says there was participation from the Franklin estate throughout the process — although her youngest son, Kecalf Franklin, and granddaughter Grace Franklin blasted the show on social media, the former claiming it was "pushed through without our consent" and urged "true fans" not to support it."

Parks, however, contends, "We felt like we worked with them from the very beginning. We were interacting with folks from the estate. ... Hopefully people will see we accurately depicted this woman."

For Erivo, 34 — an Emmy, Grammy and Tony Award winner and an Academy Award nominee from England — portraying the Franklin led to "a lot of sleepless nights." But her convincing performance, aided in no small part by meticulously re-created fashions, shows she channeled the pressure in the right direction.

"For any of the women I play ... it always dawns on me, 'If this person was alive today, if they were sitting, watching with me, would they be happy with how it was portrayed?'" Erivo, who portrayed Harriet Tubman in the film "Harriet" and was in stage productions of "The Color Purple" and "Sister Act," said during South By Southwest. "There is not just the responsibility to play them well but tell their stories in a way they would want to see it."

There were few, if any, doubts about Erivo from the "Genius" team, but primary director Anthony Hemingway says he knew she was perfect on the first day of shooting, a scene of Franklin recording her first breakthrough hit, "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)" during February 1967 at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala.

"That was the first song we did in our shooting, and I liken it to almost my wedding day ... the moment I said, 'I do,' 'cause that's how mesmerizing she was," Hemingway, 43 ("Treme," "Empire," "CSI: NY") recalled. "The entire crew melted and just were like, 'Oh, this is gonna be awesome! We can't get no closer!' I just wanted to, 'Again! You got one more in ya?' 'Cause I wanted to hear more."


The musical choices for "Genius: Aretha" are equally intriguing. You won't hear "Respect" and several of Franklin's other biggest hits — mostly due to rights that had been secured by the "Respect" film. But that allowed Parks and company to dig deeper into Franklin's catalog, from the gospel standards she sang as a child to 1970's powerhouse "Call Me" and her renditions of The Band's "The Weight," Elton John's "Border Song (Holy Moses)."

And, of course, there's the "Nessun Dorma" moment, when Franklin made "a piece of opera sound like soul," according to Erivo.

"I think first and foremost the music that we use in the show really supports the narrative and the evolution of the time periods that we lean into for Aretha's journey," Hemingway explains. Parks, meanwhile, is happy that they serve the series well.

"Aretha Franklin's genius ... isn't defined and limited by her hits," she says. "What's great is we have a lot of songs people will go, 'I've never heard that' or 'I heard that song on that album back then ... wow!' I think our story follows the songs, and it's much such a powerful narrative and drama using these songs."

While "Genius: Aretha" has the Franklin lane to itself for the time being, living on in the Hulu streaming world will inevitably bring comparisons to "Respect" this summer. Parks is fine with that. She's friendly with "Respect" director Liesl Tommy from their days in theater, and she's certain Franklin's legacy can support more than one biographical project.

"Aretha Franklin is an American icon," Parks says, "and if there were 100 projects — films, TV shows, musical, what have you — it would be just wonderful. She's the Queen of Soul, after all. She deserves as many wonderful projects as we can make."

"Genius: Aretha" premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday, March 21, with two episodes per night through Thursday, March 25. The shows will stream via Hulu the following day, with all eight running on Thursday, which would have been Aretha Franklin's 79th birthday.

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