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Review: 'Genius: Aretha'

Cynthia Erivo in Nat Geo's 'Genius: Aretha'
Cynthia Erivo stars in Nat Geo's 'Genius: Aretha' (Image credit: Nat Geo)

National Geographic continues its Genius franchise with a focus on the life of R&B music legend Aretha Franklin.

Much like its first two Genius projects about Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, Genius: Aretha is defined by the excellent performance of its lead star, Cynthia Erivo. It doesn’t take long for Erivo to embody the look and aura of the legendary singer. It also doesn’t take long for Erivo to deliver her well-established musical vocals to Aretha’s biggest and well-known hits, opening the series with a rendition of Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” during a live 1967 concert performance. 

The series also doesn’t wait long in delving into Franklin’s personal life, which has been mostly private and undisclosed to most observers. In just the first episode, viewers will learn of Franklin’s initial experiences with racism as a child; her complicated relationship with her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin (Courtney B. Vance), a well-known Detroit Baptist minister nicknamed “The Man with the Million Dollar Voice;” her often-turbulent early marriage; and her experiences as a young mother.

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Viewers will also get a glimpse of Franklin’s grit and determination to be a star, as well as her natural musical abilities. Franklin was a self-taught pianist, and in one scene depicting a recording session, she explains to a group of musicians her vision of how a song should sound not through intricate musical terminology but through her own language and vibe. The mostly white musicians quickly pick up on Franklin’s cues, resulting in one of her biggest hits. 

The eight-episode series will take viewers through Franklin’s life and career, from her chart explosion and literal coronation as the “Queen of Soul” at a concert, to her unabashed support for the Civil Rights Movement, to her awkward but eventually successful transition through several changes in musical styles and trends. Fans of Franklin as well as of the Genius franchise will certainly not be disappointed in Genius: Aretha

National Geographic will air all eight episodes of Genius: Aretha across four consecutive nights beginning March 21.

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.