Nat Geo’s exhaustive bio-pic on Aretha Franklin suggests it may have been more fun to listen to the Queen of Soul than to be the Queen of Soul.
And you definitely did not want to set your moral compass by The Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s famous preacher father.
Those points are explored and illustrated at length in Genius: Aretha Franklin, which runs eight parts and premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET. Nat Geo will air two episodes a night through Wednesday.
That’s a lot of Aretha, and while her music and her story warrant extensive examination, the sheer length and constant time-shifts demand a serious commitment from viewers.
On the plus side, eight episodes means long segments of music, and Cynthia Erivo, playing and singing Franklin, conveys the irresistible distinction of her performances.
Nobody sounded quite like Aretha Franklin once she got to Atlantic Records in the late 1960s and started cutting songs like “Respect” or “Chain of Fools.” Not without cause was she the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
That level of success didn’t bring a commensurate personal satisfaction, as often happens with artists, and Erivo’s dour expression, somewhere between suspicion and exasperation, makes it clear that even after she had been crowned Queen of Soul, Franklin had to spend much of her time fighting.
She fought for her career, for her music and for civil rights, among other things, and her insistence on r-e-s-p-e-c-t did not always serve her well in human relationships. She tended to outgrow people, from her first husband Ted White (Malcolm Barrett) to Jerry Wexler, the Atlantic producer credited with prompting her to unveil her true voice.
As written by show creator Suzan-Lori Parks, Franklin had plenty to be frustrated about. Her studio skills were undervalued, her personal wishes often brushed aside.
She spends a good part of the series looking for herself — who she wants to be as an artist and a person. That can be a tough quest for anyone, which may explain why it feels like it takes Erivo’s Aretha multiple episodes to crack her first full smile.
She’s sporadically close to her sisters Erma (Patrice Covington) and Carolyn (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and her booking agent Ruth Bowen (Kimberly Hebert Gregory). But she’s not really nice to anybody except perhaps her children and first-bloom boyfriends.
Part of it is the maniacal ambition common to stars, and part of it seems to be plain old self-absorption. Genius hints at her penchant for firing musicians or not showing up for recording sessions and concert dates because she just wasn’t in the mood.
No relationship, however, personal or professional, generates anything close to the impact of her lifelong dance with her father C.L.
As memorably portrayed by Courtney B. Vance, C.L. makes himself into a widely honored civil rights leader, a passionate and committed ally of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
He’s also an arrogant bully toward Aretha and a faithless husband whose infidelity drove Aretha’s mother out when Aretha was 6. Her mother died a few years later, making C.L. the in-house parent for most of Aretha’s life.
Unsurprisingly, she clung to him as her rock even as she blamed him for the loss of her mother, chafed under his constant efforts to control her life and resented his moral hypocrisy.
C.L. launched her career when he brought her along on his summer tent-show gospel tours before she was a teenager. She was a star almost from the first note. She knew it and so did he. He was unconcerned that dropping her into the loose-living world of a touring show led to her having two babies by the time she was 15.
As long as they didn’t hinder her career, he was indifferent — and they didn’t, though it took her almost a decade after she turned pro to find the niche in which she became Aretha. She spent several years, well chronicled elsewhere and properly noted here, singing jazz and standards for Columbia Records before Wexler brought her to Atlantic and turned her loose.
Wexler (David Cross) gets an ambivalent portrayal here. He’s credited with appreciating her potential, finding her musical niche and patiently dealing with her prickly personality. He also underestimates her determination and tries to steer her away from, for instance, message music, arguing that it doesn’t sell records.
It should be added that he’s hardly the most condescending white man, or man in general, past whom Franklin must navigate.
Erivo’s Franklin ultimately comes across as mostly sympathetic and mostly not warm. Genius’s constant flashbacks, which are more exhausting than confusing, paint a childhood that was comfortable at the same time it launched her into a life where something would always be not quite right.
The show spends considerable time framing Franklin as a civil rights activist and icon, which might slightly overstate that part of her life. It dips in and out on some of her personal issues, including alcohol and weight. It often deals with her family relationships, outside of her father, by sidestepping them.
Still, in the wider picture it conveys the two most important dramatic points: what she achieved in her music and the price she paid.
Like other memorable female artists, from Lena Horne to Judy Garland, Billie Holiday and Whitney Houston, Franklin likely can’t be encapsulated in one production, even one eight-episode production. Genius takes us a step closer to sorting her out.