In ‘Genius: Aretha,’ Respecting the Mind, Not Just the Soul

When she started preparing for the National Geographic series “Genius: Aretha,” the showrunner Suzan-Lori Parks did what one often does before tackling a biographical project: She crammed. Her approach was a little unusual, though.

“I spent months and months reading about what she said, and also noting what she didn’t say,” Parks said of the singer, songwriter and activist Aretha Franklin in a video conversation last month. “Jazz musicians will remind us that the music isn’t just the notes, it’s the stuff between the notes, the silences.”

And there were plenty of both during Franklin’s extraordinary life — the focus of the third season of “Genius,” which premieres on March 21 with the British actress and singer Cynthia Erivo in the title role. For Parks, that presented both an opportunity and a challenge: Franklin tried hard to control her public persona, which didn’t seem to be a huge priority for the subjects of the two previous seasons of “Genius,” Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, whose sometimes less-than-stellar behavior might have even enhanced their mystique.

But for Franklin, a Black woman who rose to superstardom amid the Civil Rights conflagrations of the 1960s, the stakes were different.

“I think she very much wanted to be seen in a certain way,” said Parks. “As Black American people, we are very aware of our marketability, and as Black American artists, we are maybe even more aware of our marketability.”

“My challenge,” she added, “was: ‘How do I tell the truth about this Black American woman who is a brilliant icon? And how do I tell the truth and be respectful?’”

There was certainly a wealth of material, given Franklin’s decades in the spotlight as one of the world’s most famous singers. Franklin made her first album at 14, signed with Columbia Records at 18 and went on to record and perform well into her 70s, earning 18 competitive Grammies, a National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. By the time she died in 2018, at age 76, she had sold tens of millions records, scored 20 No. 1 R&B hits and was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Erivo, who won a Tony, Grammy and Daytime Emmy for her role in the musical version of “The Color Purple,” was tasked not only with portraying the woman whose undisputed nickname was “the Queen of Soul” but also with singing like her — Erivo performed the vocals for Franklin’s tracks. She tried to look at the bigger picture.

“I was more interested in telling the story as truthfully as I possibly could, as opposed to mimicking,” Erivo said in a video call last month — though her interpretations are eerily spot on, too.

“I would want to know: ‘Where are we right now? What is this coming out of or what are we going into? What is the feeling here?’” she added. Erivo and a vocal coach would begin by trying to zoom in on the finer details of Franklin’s technical virtuosity and her subtle emotional inflections.

“Then you let it go,” Erivo continued. “No one wants to watch someone singing analytically. No one wants to watch someone doing the notes. You learn them, you understand them, and then you let that go so that there’s a freedom for it to just move through you.”

For Parks, zeroing in on truth in a series called “Genius” began with reflections on the meaning of the word and what it implies. She has, herself, been given that label, having received a MacArthur Fellowship — known as the “genius award” — for her playwriting. She was the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, for “Topdog/Underdog,” and she recently penned the screenplay for the film “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.”

Doing the series was an opportunity, she said, “to talk about Aretha Franklin’s genius, specifically, and what Black female genius might look like.” One important aspect was Franklin’s ability to build bridges, particularly during the Civil Rights era, often alongside Martin Luther King Jr., played by Ethan Henry. (King is the subject of the next season of “Genius.”)

Another, which Parks contended was among Franklin’s most distinctive achievements, was the way she “alchemized her pain into sonic gold.”

Parks said she drew from “mountains of research” to depict the biographical elements for that alchemy, toggling between Franklin’s adult life and her adolescent past. Central to the story is Franklin’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin (Courtney B. Vance), with whom the young Aretha (played by Shaian Jordan) had a close but complex relationship. The leader of the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, C.L. was a celebrity in his own right and segued smoothly from indulging in earthly delights on Saturdays to preaching heavenly sermons on Sundays.

Aretha was 6 when her mother, a gospel singer and pianist, left C.L. because of his infidelities. (She died four years later.) Left in charge, C.L. cultivated his daughter’s talent and began taking her on rowdy gospel tours from age 12. The reverend could be domineering, but he loved his daughter, whom he affectionately called Little Re, and was supportive; in the series, he surrounds her with enviable role models, including the singer Dinah Washington and the jazz pianist Art Tatum.

Still, life as a charismatic preacher’s daughter on the road could be fraught. Little Re had two of her four sons by the time she was 15.

“I think I would be a mess if I had a child whilst doing all the things I’m doing right now,” said Erivo. “I don’t know how she did that, because I don’t believe she was ever half-doing anything.”

The series doesn’t shy from less savory details of Franklin’s biography, including difficult relationships and the impact her ambitions sometimes had on loved ones. Her first husband and early manager, Ted White (Malcolm Barrett), is portrayed as petty, incompetent and physically abusive. Her sister Carolyn (Rebecca Naomi Jones), another gifted songwriter and performer, gets into a bitter dispute with Aretha after Aretha snatches away some promising material.

Getting to the bottom of Franklin’s life has often proved difficult. She left so much out of her autobiography, “From These Roots,” that a frustrated David Ritz, who had been hired to help write it, went on to pen the much more detailed and revealing biography “Respect.” She condemned it as “a very trashy book.” A similarly contentious episode involving a Time cover story is enacted in the show: When the article is published, she feels betrayed by both the journalist and his sources — including her own husband.

Attempts to put Franklin onscreen have been knotty, as well. Franklin sued multiple times to block the release of the Sydney Pollack documentary “Amazing Grace,” which chronicled the recording of her electrifying double-platinum 1972 gospel album of the same name before a live audience at a Baptist church in Los Angeles. (Asked after its wide theatrical release in 2019 why he thought Aretha disliked the film, Chuck Rainey, the bassist on “Amazing Grace,” said he believed the film was too focused on style and the celebrities in the audience, including her father and the singer Clara Ward. “It was like she was wallpaper,” he said.)

A public and continuing feud among Franklin’s heirs has continued to muddy the waters since her death. Earlier this year, her son Kecalf Franklin said on Instagram that “Genius” did not have the family’s support. (He has similarly attacked MGM for its long-delayed biopic, “Respect,” scheduled for August, for which Aretha handpicked Jennifer Hudson to star.)

However, Brian Grazer, an executive producer of “Genius,” said that before filming started, the production received the endorsement of Aretha Franklin’s estate through its trustee at the time, Sabrina Owens, the singer’s niece. “We had the estate 100 percent on board, and the trustee to the estate granted us this,” he said. (Owens, who resigned as trustee last year, referred queries to the current lawyer for the estate, who did not reply to multiple requests for comment.)

Through it all, however, there is the music, which is the central, and perhaps most memorable element of the series — appropriately, given Franklin’s supersized influence on modern music.

“She was able to redeploy the melisma by giving us these testimonies about Black womanhood, about Black humanity within the context of the soul-music genre,” said Daphne A. Brooks, the author of “Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound” and a professor of African-American studies at Yale. “It transformed the pop-music landscape: We now have a kind of standard form of pop singing that comes from Aretha Franklin.”

As such, many of the most illuminating scenes in “Genius” deal not with Franklin’s private life but with the way the often shy, soft-spoken musician shaped her own work.

“When you start getting to know what it takes to make a hit song, to be in a recording studio, to work with musicians who, in the case of Muscle Shoals, are all white men in 1967 — that is a huge, brilliant triumph for her,” Parks said.

The full scale of Franklin’s contributions to her own music has long been obscured. She was a gifted songwriter and a superb pianist. In the studio, she was a taskmaster, pushing herself and her collaborators until they captured the exact sound she heard in her head — not easy for a Black female musician of her time. In the series, we see her have to ask to be credited as a producer on her biggest-selling album, “Amazing Grace,” the making of which is given an entire episode.

“I knew right when I started this project that that was going to be the place where the magic happened,” Parks said. “The story of ‘Amazing Grace’ revolves around something that is, again, not said. Watching the documentary, which is beautiful, I wanted to know the story behind it.”

“Amazing Grace” is pure gospel, which was Franklin’s emotional and spiritual anchor. But the show also demonstrates her uncommon fluency in most dominant genres of her time, including jazz, blues, Tin Pan Alley, funk and pop — “Aretha is Black, female, American,” Parks said, laughing. In her music, as in her activism, Franklin tried to reach as many people as possible. It clearly worked.

“This is the stuff, in my opinion, of Black female genius,” Parks said. “She brought people together for the greater good.”

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