I watched the Aretha Franklin bio-series on NatGeo this week and didn’t love it.
I have nothing bad to say about Cynthia Erivo’s performance as Aretha. I’ve admired her work in “Harriet” and “Bad Times at the El Royale,” and knew she was a helluva singer, so I wasn’t surprised at her ability to mimic Franklin’s rhythms and vocal stylings while also handling the dramatic aspects of the role. She was the clear highlight of the series.
But Erivo’s talent doesn’t overshadow four big problems with “Genius: Aretha,” for which I blame the series’ show runner, Suzan-Lori Parks.
One was the over-emphasis on flashbacks to Aretha’s childhood and upbringing. By the second episode, I was already fast-forwarding past those sequences. Aretha had enough highs and lows in her adult life without constantly dragging us back to her earliest days at home and on the gospel caravan tours with her father. That could have all been covered in half of one of the six hour-long episodes.
The second problem was the constant time-shifting from one era to another. If you have a great story, just tell it in a linear fashion without leaping back and forth through the years. Problem number three was the length of the series — eight episodes were far too much to fill, and too much of it was mere padding that didn’t advance the story.
Finally, we didn’t get to hear Erivo singing three of Aretha’s biggest hits: “Respect,” “Think,” and “Natural Woman.” The excuse is that the producers “couldn’t get” the rights to those songs, but that almost always means they “didn’t pay enough.” Or it may be due to a conflict with an Aretha biopic entitled “Respect” that’s due later this year with Jennifer Hudson playing the Queen of Soul.
Regardless, using Aretha’s covers of other people’s songs (e.g. Elton John’s “Border Song,” The Rolling Stones “Satisfaction,” Dusty Springfield’s “Son Of A Preacher Man”) robbed us of hearing a major actress portraying a major star performing her major hits, which is one of the reasons to watch projects like this in the first place. That said, I’m glad they got the rights to show the real Aretha at the 1998 Grammy Awards, where she stepped in at the last minute when Luciano Pavarotti got sick. Her triumphant performance of “Nessun Dorma” was thrilling, even to people who never thought they liked opera (like me).
I give “Genius: Aretha” a 4 out of 10 — and that’s only because Erivo did such a good job. Now streaming on Hulu.