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Big story, great music, fine acting drive Aretha Franklin series on National Geographic | COMMENTARY

Cynthia Erivo portrays Aretha Franklin in a scene from the National Geographic miniseries “Genius: Aretha.” (Richard DuCree/National Geographic via AP)
Cynthia Erivo portrays Aretha Franklin in a scene from the National Geographic miniseries “Genius: Aretha.” (Richard DuCree/National Geographic via AP) (RICHARD DUCREE/AP)

In the first hour of “Genius: Aretha,” an eight-part dramatization on the life of singer Aretha Franklin, there’s a scene set in 1967 in the legendary Fame recording studios at Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Franklin is at the piano trying to establish musical rapport with a group of white sidemen she has never met, brought in by celebrated R&B producer Jerry Wexler.

Things are not going well. And then after yet another blown take and a whispered admonition from Wexler to be herself, Franklin starts playing on the piano gospel chords remembered from her Sundays as a little girl singing in the Detroit church of her father the Rev. C.L. Franklin. The chords immediately catch the attention of the musicians who try to figure out what they are so they can replicate them on their instruments

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“It’s funky,” one says of the sound of one chord she plays.

“It’s celestial,” says another.

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“It’s both,’ Franklin says looking up at the musicians and smiling. And then she eases into the opening chords of what would become “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).”

As she started singing and the sidemen started following her lead, I was a goner, absolutely hooked on this series. I have never seen and heard a TV production capture an artist’s sound or use music more movingly than “Genius: Aretha.” (And I’ve been reviewing them since ABC’s made-for-TV dramatization of Elvis Presley’s life, “Elvis,” in 1979. Check out a YouTube video; it’s better than you might think.)

The music alone would make this production worthy of eight hours of anyone’s time. But there is so much more to recommend it.

The showrunner and lead writer is Suzan-Lori Parks, a Tony and Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright (”Topdog/”Underdog”), who also did the screenplay for “Billie Holiday vs. The United States,” which is streaming on Hulu. The writing here is deep and nuanced with a psychological, sociological and artistic sweep that recreates the feelings and currents of post-World-War-II urban life, which served as the crucible in which the character and talent of Franklin were forged.

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The director, Emmy and Golden Globe winner Anthony Hemingway (”The People v. O.J. Simpson”), is wise and self-confident enough to let the words and musical sounds rather the visuals dominate some scenes. Because of that respect for the ear as well as the eye, he manages take viewers inside the music unlike anyone this side of Martin Scorsese, who filmed “The Last Waltz” with The Band. Hemingway gets it musically right both in the church and recording studios.

The acting is outstanding as well. As singular a persona as Franklin became in the popular imagination, Tony, Emmy and Grammy Award winner Cynthia Erivo (”Harriet”) made me forget at certain moments that I was watching an actress playing the singer and not the woman herself. Erivo does much of the singing in this series, and even after going back and matching her work in the film with YouTube moments of the real Franklin performing the same songs, I am here to sing Erivo’s praises without qualification.

As an actress, she is one of great ones who can communicate internal tension and turmoil without words. And this production’s depiction of Franklin is that of an artist steeped in turmoil, especially when it comes to her relationship with her powerful, sexual predator father. Parks gave Erivo a rich, Freudian road map of a script, and Erivo shows the artistic skill and courage to navigate all the twists and turns.

Courtney B. Vance plays second fiddle to Erivo, but this series could not work nearly as well as it does dramatically if Vance’s Rev. Franklin did not tower over his daughter’s world even when she was an adult. Vance is big enough as an actor to make his character’s presence felt every moment he is on screen. His Rev. Franklin is the face of patriarchy behaving as badly as he wants with women in his congregation and household even as he preaches a gospel of moral rectitude from the pulpit. As one character in the series says of him, “He loves Sunday morning and Saturday night.”

The intensity of Vance’s performance can be seen early in a flashback to Franklin’s childhood as she watches her father from the choir preaching and leading his congregation in singing “I Will Trust in the Lord” at New Bethel Baptist Church. Watch the way Vance uses his entire body to sell the song and communicate a sense of the power of the spirit he is feeling as he sings.

And, by the way, the chords that introduce this song to his congregation are the same ones the adult Franklin hears in her head as she starts sketching an introduction to “I Never Loved a Man” in the Muscle Shoals studio. The large role of the Black church in shaping American popular culture in the last century is a rich leitmotif of “Genius: Aretha.”

In the second episode, Franklin is shown as a 12-year-old traveling and performing in the South in the 1950s with the C.L. Franklin Gospel Caravan. One touching scene shows her standing alone in the wings of tent-show stage mimicking the lightning quick steps of one of the older female performers who brings the audience to its feet with her dance moves. Call it: “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl.” I took a break from writing this column to watch more videos of the real Aretha Franklin, and saw her in 2014 doing those very same dance steps on “Women in Soul: In Performance at the White House” during a transcendent evening of music hosted by President Barack and first lady Michelle Obama.

I was inspired by this series. I clapped, I yelled “yes” at the screen and even cried a couple of times during the musical numbers. I might have been tearful about the moments of my personal past that are connected in my memory to some of the tunes rather than the performance of the songs in the film themselves. But I don’t think so. I believe that the power of Franklin’s music is so strong that it can still touch my heart even when it is not in its original form with her singing it.

When I told a friend this week I was writing about the series, she said, “The only reason I know there is a God is that I heard Aretha Franklin sing.” And she’s not in the least religious.

I am glad to see that National Geographic has included Franklin in its anthology series ”Genius.” The first two seasons were “Genius: Einstein” and “Genius: Picasso.” They were good and obvious choices. But media need to be more inclusive and diverse in terms of who and what gets celebrated, and “Genius: Aretha” will convince you she has every right and then some to be in that circle. She used different tools and gifts, and had different demons to overcome on her hero quest. But she is every bit the artist Picasso was.

“Genius: Aretha” will premiere at 9 p.m. March 21 on National Geographic channel with two episodes each night for four nights. The episodes will then be available the next day on Hulu. All episodes will be available to stream on March 25.

David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik

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