Nat Geo's 'Genius: Aretha' Can't Match the Real Aretha Franklin

At least the new limited series features great music.

Nat Geo
Nat Geo
Nat Geo

There’s a test that any narrative project about a great performer has to pass. At any point in the proceedings, do you find yourself wanting to turn it off and go watch the real subject do their thing? Bohemian Rhapsody, for instance, fails this test in many ways but particularly in its final sequence, which recreates Queen’s Live Aid set with a lot of CGI. Why not just cue up YouTube and watch Queen’s actual Live Aid performance? Now, the new instalment of Nat Geo’s Genius anthology series faces a similar problem with regards to its subject, Aretha Franklin, specifically in the sixth episode, “Amazing Grace.”

The hour-which closes out the season’s three-night run on Tuesday, with all six episodes available on Foxtel on Wednesday-attempts to recreate the live recording of Franklin’s 1972 gospel album at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. And while Cynthia Erivo, who portrays Franklin, has an astounding voice, I couldn’t help but want to turn off the screener and turn on Amazing Grace, the 2018 documentary now streaming on Hulu, which consists of archival footage of the actual recording session filmed by director Sydney Pollack. As talented as Erivo is, Franklin herself is just a few clicks away, possibly on the very same streaming service, if you choose to watch Genius: Aretha on Hulu.

The latest instalment of the Genius anthology comes with a lot of anticipation but also a dose of controversy, with members of Franklin’s family alleging that producers refused to reach out to them in preparation. (They are cooperating with a feature film due out later this year, Respect, starring Jennifer Hudson.) Genius: Aretha isn’t disrespectful-at least not in the way that her son’s comments imply. But it also fails in its ultimate mission of honouring Franklin’s genius. Developed by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, Genius: Aretha jumps back and forth in time to tell a comprehensive story of Franklin’s life and career. She is portrayed as a young girl by Shaian Jordan, while Erivo takes over when Aretha matures into adulthood. Both sing incredibly, and the most electrifying sequences are when Parks allows the music to guide the plot. But all too frequently, the dialogue scenes rely on almost goofy moments of revelation to demonstrate how Aretha is evolving as an artist. (Call it the Walk Hard curse: Anytime a music biopic makes you think of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, it’s a bad sign.)

Most egregiously, whenever Erivo’s Aretha is not singing she’s dwarfed on screen by the towering male figures around her. The first four episodes document a war for control over her life and career between her first husband Ted White (Malcolm Barrett) and her preacher father C.L. Franklin (Courtney B. Vance). When Ted exits the picture, the legacy and troubles of C.L. become even more of a burden. Vance gives a typically excellent performance, but you’ll begin to notice how much focus he takes away from Aretha herself. Similarly, the attention to C.L. comes at the expense of the development of any other important relationships in her life. For instance, her sisters, also musicians, are given short shrift, and the competition among them is hastily resolved.

Erivo, who rose to fame in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple, plays Aretha with deliberate focus. She’s a woman who chooses her words carefully, but flourishes when she’s singing. And Erivo’s singing is extraordinary. She does not do an impression of Aretha, but rather an interpretation of her style. She’s incredible, but she’s also not Aretha Franklin. And that’s why I felt myself drawn to abandon Genius and seek out the voice of the legendary singer it aims to honour.

Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.


Where to Celebrate Lunar New Year 2023 in Australia

And what it means to be in the year of the Rabbit.

where to celebrate lunar new year australia

Starting with the new moon on Sunday, January 22, this Lunar New Year ushers in the year of the Rabbit. We’ve put together a guide on celebrating the Lunar New Year in Australia.

What is special about the year of the Rabbit?

As you might know, each year has an animal sign in the Chinese Zodiac, which is based on the moon and has a 12-year cycle. This year, we celebrate the year of the rabbit, known to be the luckiest out of all twelve animals. It symbolises mercy, elegance, and beauty.

What celebrations are taking place and how can I get involved?

There are plenty of festivals happening all around the country which you can get involved with. Here they are per state.

New South Wales

Darling Harbour Fireworks
When: Every year, Sydney puts on a fireworks show, and this year, you can catch it on January 28 and February 4 at 9 pm in Darling Harbour.

Dragon Boat Races
When: Witness three days of dragon boat races and entertainment on Cockle Bay to usher in the Lunar New Year. The races will commence on January 27 and finish on January 29.

Lion Dances
When: Catch a traditional Lion Dance moving to the beat of a vigorous drum bringing good luck and fortune for the Lunar New Year. The dance performances will happen across Darling Harbour on Saturday, January 21, Sunday, January 22, and Sunday, February 4 and 5, around 6 pm and 9 pm.

Lunar New Year at Cirrus Dining
When: Barangaroo’s waterfront seafood restaurant, Cirrus, is celebrating the Year of the Rabbit with a special feast menu. Cirrus’ LNY menu is $128pp with optional wine pairing and is available from Saturday, January 21, to Sunday, February 5.

Auntie Philter
When: Hello Auntie’s owner and executive chef, Cuong Nguyen will be dishing out some of the most classic Vietnamese street foods with his mum, Linda. All of Philter’s favourites will be on offer, as well as Raspberry Pash Beer Slushies and other cocktails being served at the Philter Brewing rooftop bar on Sunday, January 22 and Sunday, January 29.


Lunar New Year Festival
When: Ring in the Lunar New Year with food, music, arts, and more on Sunday, January 22, from 10 am to 9 pm.

Lunar New Year at the National Gallery of Victoria
When: Celebrate the year of the rabbit at the National Gallery of Victoria’s festival of art, food, and art-making activities for everyone from 10 am-5 pm.


BriAsia Festival
When: From February 1-19, Brisbane will come alive with performances, including lion dances and martial arts displays. There will be street food, workshops, comedy and more.

South Australia

Chinatown Adelaide Street Party
When: Adelaide is set to hose a fun-filled day celebrating the Chinese New Year on Saturday, January 28, from 12 pm to 9 pm.

Western Australia

Crown Perth
When: Across January and February, Crown Perth hosts free live entertainment, including colourful lion dances, roving mascots, and drumming performances. The restaurants will also throw banquets and menus dedicated to the Lunar New Year.

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