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‘Genius: Aretha’ earns its respect with Cynthia Erivo’s showstopping role

Entertainment

(CNN)After Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, “Genius: Aretha” is both the most commercial and the best installment of this National Geographic anthology series, powered by Cynthia Erivo’s “give her all the awards now” performance as the Queen of Soul. Flitting around in time and covering a great deal of ground, the production earns a big helping of R-E-S-P-E-C-T to all concerned.

It helps that Aretha Franklin’s extraordinary talent was matched by an equally dramatic life, one in which she dealt with disappointing men and worked with civil-rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. The first category begins with her father, Pastor C.L. Franklin (Courtney B. Vance), a philanderer who, an associate notes wryly, loves Saturday night as well as Sunday morning.

Aretha also marries young to a family friend (Malcolm Barrett), who can be both jealous and abusive. Seeking to manage her career, his style frequently works against her, adding to the roadblocks erected by race and resistance to her singing, as she says, the way she feels it.

    Record executives, at first, don’t know what to do with her, before she finds an ally in producer Jerry Wexler (David Cross). Yet even he needs some prodding and pushing to respect her artistic choices, including her desire to produce her records.

      Under the stewardship of playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”), “Aretha” liberally uses black-and-white flashbacks to explore her experiences as a young girl, played splendidly by Shaian Jordan. As the eight-episode series makes clear, her singing talents were honed in the pews of her father’s church, against a backdrop of pain and heartache.

        Franklin died in 2018, and another version of her life, the movie “Respect” starring Jennifer Hudson, is still to come. Erivo certainly sets the bar high, portraying her as a figure of understated power. Seldom raising her voice when not in song, she’s capable of reducing a producer to ashes with a withering stare when he suggests trying another take.

        “Genius” also does a good job in showcasing Franklin’s music, and at eight episodes (to play over four consecutive nights), there’s plenty of time for it, with Erivo — a Tony winner for the musical “The Color Purple” — belting out the tunes in a manner that evokes the Queen’s style while still making them her own.

          “I’m not afraid of hard work,” Aretha says during an early meeting. “I hope that’s clear.”

            Deriving its episodic subtitles from Franklin songs, “Genius: Aretha” is a testament to that hard work. And like the best musical biographies, it enhances an appreciation of Franklin’s life and career, with an ease and grace that makes it look easy.

            “Genius: Aretha” premieres March 21 at 9 p.m. on National Geographic, with episodes available the next day on Hulu.