In ‘Genius: Aretha,’ Respecting the Thoughts, Not Simply the Soul

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

As she was preparing for the National Geographic series “Genius: Aretha,” showrunner Suzan-Lori Parks did what one often does before getting into a biographical project: It was full. However, their approach was a bit unusual.

“I read what she said for months and wrote down what she didn’t say,” said Parks last month in a video interview about singer, songwriter and activist Aretha Franklin. “Jazz musicians will remind us that the music is not just the notes, but the stuff between the notes, the silence.”

And both were in abundance in Franklin’s extraordinary life – the focus of the third season of Genius, which premieres on March 21st with British actress and singer Cynthia Erivo in the title role. For Parks, this was both an opportunity and a challenge: Franklin struggled to control her public role, which didn’t seem like a high priority for the themes of the previous two seasons of Genius, Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso. their sometimes less than outstanding behavior may even have increased their mystique.

But for Franklin, a black woman who rose to superstar amid the civil rights fires of the 1960s, the stakes were different.

“I think she really wanted to be seen in a certain way,” said Parks. “As black Americans we are very aware of our marketability, and as black American artists we are perhaps even more aware of our marketability.”

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

Given Franklin’s decades in the spotlight as one of the most famous singers in the world, there was certainly an abundance of material. Franklin made her first album at age 14, signed to Columbia Records at age 18, and recorded well into her 70s, playing 18 competitive Grammies, a National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. By the time she died in 2018 at the age of 76, she had sold tens of millions of records, had 20 # 1 R&B hits, and was the first woman to be 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 hired to portray not only the woman whose undisputed nickname was “the queen of the soul,” but like her too sing – Erivo played the vocals for Franklin’s tracks. She tried to see the bigger picture.

“I was more interested in telling the story as truthfully as possible than imitating it,” Erivo said in a video call last month – although her interpretations are also incredibly accurate.

“I would like to know, ‘Where are we right now? What does this come from or what do we go into? What is that feeling here? ‘”, Added her. Erivo and a vocal coach would first try to enlarge the finer details of Franklin’s technical virtuosity and subtle emotional influences.

“Then you let go of it,” continued Erivo. “Nobody wants to see someone sing analytically. Nobody wants to watch someone taking the notes. You learn them, you understand them, and then you let that go so there is the freedom to just move through you. “

For Parks, the struggle with the truth began in a series called “Genius” with reflections on the meaning of the word and its implications. She herself received this label after receiving a MacArthur grant 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 wrote the script for The United States vs. Billie Holiday.

Making the show was an opportunity, she said, “to talk specifically about Aretha Franklin’s genius and what the black woman’s genius might be like.” An important aspect was Franklin’s ability to build bridges, especially during the civil rights era, often alongside Martin Luther King Jr., played by Ethan Henry. (King is the theme of the next season of “Genius”.)

Another that Parks claimed was one of Franklin’s most distinctive accomplishments was the way she “turned her pain into sonic gold.”

Parks said she drew from “mountains of research” to reveal the biographical elements for that alchemy that alternated between Franklin’s adult life and her adolescent past. At the center of the story is Franklin’s father, Rev. CL Franklin (Courtney B. Vance), with whom young Aretha (played by Shaian Jordan) had a close but complex relationship. The leader of the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, CL, was a celebrity in its own right, smoothly transitioning from earthly joys on Saturday to heavenly sermons on Sunday.

Aretha was 6 years old when her mother, a gospel singer and pianist, left CL because of his infidelity. (She died four years later.) CL, who was in command, cultivated his daughter’s talent and began taking her on rowdy gospel tours from the age of 12 onwards; In the series, he surrounds her with enviable role models, including singer Dinah Washington and jazz pianist Art Tatum.

Even so, life as the daughter of a charismatic preacher on the street could be fraught with problems. Little Re had two of their four sons when she was 15.

“I think I would be a mess if I had a kid while doing all the things that I am doing right now,” said Erivo. “I don’t know how she did it because I don’t think she ever half did anything.”

The series eschews no less palatable details from 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 argument with Aretha after Aretha rips off promising material.

Getting to the bottom of Franklin’s life has often proven difficult. She let so much out of her autobiography “From These Roots” that a frustrated David Ritz, who had been assigned to write it, penned the much more detailed and insightful biography “Respect”. She condemned it as “a very trashy book”. A similarly controversial episode with a Time cover story is featured on the show: If the article is published, she will feel betrayed by both the journalist and his sources – including her own husband.

Attempts to get Franklin on the screen were also gnarled. Franklin sued several times to block the release of the Sydney Pollack documentary, “Amazing Grace,” which recorded the recording of her electrifying 1972 double platinum gospel album of the same name in front of a live audience at a Baptist church in Los Angeles. (When asked about why Aretha didn’t like the movie when it opened in 2019, Chuck Rainey, bassist on Amazing Grace, said he believed the movie was too focused on style and the celebrities in the audience, including her father and the singer Clara Ward. “It was like wallpaper,” he said.

A public and ongoing feud among Franklin’s heirs has further tarnished the waters since her death. Earlier this year, her son Kecalf Franklin said on Instagram that “Genius” didn’t have the family’s support. (Similarly, he attacked MGM for its August biopsy, “Respect,” which Aretha selected Jennifer Hudson to star in.)

Brian Grazer, an executive producer on Genius, however, said the production received confirmation of Aretha Franklin’s estate from then trustee Sabrina Owens, the singer’s niece, prior to filming. “We had 100 percent of the estate on board, and the estate trustee granted us that,” he said. (Owens, who resigned as trustee last year, referred requests to the estate’s current attorney, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

In all of this, however, lies the music, which is the central and perhaps most memorable element of the series – appropriate given Franklin’s overwhelming influence on modern music.

“She was able to reinvent melisma by giving us these testimonies about black femininity, about black humanity in the context of the soul music genre,” said Daphne A. Brooks, author of “Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life “of Black Feminist Sound” and Professor of African American Studies at Yale. “It changed 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 revealing scenes in “Genius” deal not with Franklin’s personal life, but with the way the often shy, softly spoken musician designed her own work.

“When you start to know what it takes to make a hit, to be in a recording studio, to work with musicians who, in the case of Muscle Shoals 1967, are all white men – that’s a great, brilliant triumph for them.” said Parks.

The full extent of Franklin’s contributions to her own music has long been obscured. She was a gifted songwriter and an excellent pianist. In the studio, she was task master and pushed herself and her staff until they caught exactly the sound that she heard in her head – not easy for a black musician of her time. On the show, she has to ask to be recognized as the producer for her best-selling album, “Amazing Grace,” the creation of which includes an entire episode.

“I knew right at the start of this project that this would be where the magic happened,” said Parks. “The story of ‘Amazing Grace’ is about something that is again not said. When I was watching the documentary, which is beautiful, I wanted to know the story behind it. “

“Amazing Grace” is pure gospel that was Franklin’s emotional and spiritual anchor. The show also shows her unusual fluency in the most dominant genres of its time, including jazz, blues, tin pan alley, funk and pop – “Aretha is black, female, American,” said Parks with a laugh. In her music, as in her activism, Franklin tried to reach as many people as possible. It clearly worked.

“This is, in my opinion, the stuff of black woman genius,” said Parks. “She brought people together for the common good.”