Review: 'Genius: Aretha' no match for Queen of Soul, but earns respect

Cynthia Erivo stars as Aretha Franklin in new Nat Geo series, premiering Sunday

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

An empty pizza box sits atop Aretha Franklin's piano. It's removed during a cleaning of the room by a studio lackey, and when Aretha sits down to play, she notices it doesn't sound right. What happened to the pizza box? She orders its immediate return, and places it just so to achieve her desired sound, and goes on about her business of creating. 

It's minor but incisive moments like these where "Genius: Aretha" shines. The eight-part National Geographic series — it premieres with back-to-back episodes Sunday night, and will air two episodes each over the following three nights — is, for the most part, basic bio fare, but it's perked up by stellar musical performances throughout and occasional insights into the mind of its royal subject, Detroit's own Queen of Soul.  

Cynthia Erivo in "Genius: Aretha."

Cynthia Erivo, an Oscar nominee for 2019's "Harriet," stars as Franklin. Erivo doesn't have Franklin's physical presence — she doesn't command a room or take your breath away the way Franklin did — and she plays her as more of a demure figure, fighting several battles, both internal and external, at any given time. 

Those external battles are mostly with the men in her life, from her first husband Ted White (Malcolm Barrett) to her music producer Jerry Wexler (David Cross) to the most towering figure in her life, her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin (Detroit native Courtney B. Vance).

Vance breathes fire in the role, playing his preacher as a womanizer who "loves Saturday nights just as much as he does Sunday mornings," as one character memorably states. And he's the most important figure in Aretha's life, both her biggest supporter and the root of so much of her pain.

Cynthia Erivo in "Genius: Aretha."

"Genius: Aretha" — the first of two high-profile Aretha Franklin projects due out this year, the other being August's "Respect," starring Jennifer Hudson — largely centers on Aretha's relationship with her father, from her early years on the road with his gospel revival tours to the influence he wields over her career. When C.L. shows up during the recording of her "Amazing Grace" album, a warm moment as depicted in Sydney Pollack's documentary, it's cast in a much different light here, his attendance an act of defiance against his daughter, and a reminder of the power he has over her, which he's never hesitant to flex.  

Much of their tension comes from Aretha's childhood, and Shaian Jordan is dynamite as a young, wide-eyed and vulnerable Aretha. Young 'Ree blames her father for his mistreatment of her mother and for her eventual death, and her father's lack of supervision on the road results in two early pregnancies (Aretha has a baby at 12, and another soon after). But C.L. is also her biggest champion and supporter, so their relationship is difficult to neatly file away under one heading. Such is life.   

Elsewhere, "Genius" (previous seasons of the series were focused on Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso) depicts Franklin's political awakening and her quest for creative control over her career, most notably in her fight with Wexler to receive a producer's credit on her albums. These moments are surrounded by lively musical performances — both in the studio and on stage — and Erivo, an accomplished singer in her own right, brings vocal fireworks to these scenes.  

The dramatic fireworks are never quite as explosive. "Genius" — it's written by Suzan-Lori Parks, a Pulitzer winner for her 2001 play "Topdog/Underdog" — begins with Aretha being crowned the Queen of Soul, and bounces back and forth from there, from the '50s to the '60s to the '70s and back again. There's never any question where she's headed, and that lack of conflict often holds back the narrative's ability to connect. A thread about Aretha's rivalry with her sister, Carolyn (Rebecca Naomi Jones), is introduced early and comes back around when Aretha steals work from her singing on a Curtis Mayfield project. But after that situation comes to a head at a family gathering, it's quickly resolved and brushed aside with a hug, a dud of an emotional payoff.

"Genius" isn't a dud, and it could never be, not with its subject, Vance's commanding performance or the landmark music it's built around. But while it sings, it's not quite worthy of Aretha's crown. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Genius: Aretha'

GRADE: B-

Premieres 9 p.m. Sunday on National Geographic

Episodes air following day on Hulu