Genius: Aretha: Cynthia Erivo shines in National Geographic's Queen of Soul show

REVIEW: Having tackled the life and times of a theoretical physicist and a Spanish Cubist, National Geographics dramatised portraits series is back to look at the Queen of Soul.
Yes, after sometimes divisive takes on Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, Genius: Aretha (which debuts on Sky TVs National Geographic Channel at 9.30pm on Monday, March 22) is an eight-part, deep-dive into the singer, songwriter, pianist, actress and civil rights activists rise from church gospel singer to chart-topping artist and musical icon.

Creator Suzan-Lori Parks, who also has another musician biopic The United States vs. Billie Holiday currently on the awards circuit, initially focuses the action on Alabamas Muscle Shoals.

Its January 1967 and, while the 24-year-old was beloved on the live circuit and had already achieved some chart success, she desperately wanted to make a hit record. Having switched labels, Aretha (The Outsiders Cynthia Erivo) and her manager husband Ted White (Malcolm Barrett) had high hopes of a successful outcome at Fame Studios, a sentiment echoed by producer Jerry Wexler (David Cross). Weve got the song, weve got the talent weve just got to find the groove.

Aretha is the third edition of National Geographic's Genius series.

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However, the latter is proving elusive, Aretha struggling to connect with the all-white band. As the tensions and takes rise, tempers spill over when a horn pemain makes a suggestive remark within earshot of Ted. A scuffle ensues and the session abandoned after just a day.

It was my last chance - and you ruined it fighting, Aretha grizzles to Ted, fearing that I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) may never be released.

Despite a few flourishes, Genius: Aretha is a fairly predictable biopic, anchored and lifted by Cynthia Erivos performance.

Parks intercuts this pivotal moment in Franklins career with events more than a decade earlier, as she travels on the road with her preacher father C.L. Franklin (a charismatic Courtney B. Vance), encountering both vicious racism and his seemingly endless string of girlfriends.

He loved Sunday morning and Saturday night, observes more than one churchgoer. But, as Genius: Aretha constantly reminds us, C.L also adored his Little Rea, promoting her nascent musical talent wherever he could.

Parks and director Anthony Hemingway (American Crime Story, Shameless) evocatively demarcate the two timelines, the flashbacks told in crisp monochrome, the Alabama trip in vivid technicolour, before the two spectacularly merge in a transcendent church solo clearly inspired by Gary Ross Pleasantville. Its one of the few flourishes in what is otherwise a fairly predictable biopic, anchored and lifted by the increasingly brilliant Erivo and the always reliable Vance.

Cynthia Erivo and Malcolm Barrett play Aretha Franklin and her manager husband Ted White in Genius: Aretha.

With concert film Amazing Grace having re-whetted the publics appetite for all things Aretha, this series should easily find an audience. However, it could yet be overshadowed by the big screen biopic Respect (due here in August) and its main performer stage and screen sharapg sensation Jennifer Hudson.


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