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

When she started preparing for the National Geographic series “Genius: Aretha,” the showrunner Suzan-Lori Parks did what one often does before tackling a biographical project: She crammed. Her approach was a little unusual, though.“I spent months and months reading about what she said, and also noting what she didn’t say,” Parks said of the singer, songwriter and activist Aretha Franklin in a video conversation last month. “Jazz musicians will remind us that the music isn’t just the notes, it’s the stuff between the notes, the silences.”And there were plenty of both during Franklin’s extraordinary life — the focus of the third season of “Genius,” which premieres on March 21 with the British actress and singer Cynthia Erivo in the title role. For Parks, that presented both an opportunity and a challenge: Franklin tried hard to control her public persona, which didn’t seem to be a huge priority for the subjects of the two previous seasons of “Genius,” Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, whose sometimes less-than-stellar behavior might have even enhanced their mystique.But for Franklin, a Black woman who rose to superstardom amid the Civil Rights conflagrations of the 1960s, the stakes were different.“I think she very much wanted to be seen in a certain way,” said Parks. “As Black American people, we are very aware of our marketability, and as Black American artists, we are maybe even more aware of our marketability.”“My challenge,” she added, “was: ‘How do I tell the truth about this Black American woman who is a brilliant icon? And how do I tell the truth and be respectful?’”There was certainly a wealth of material, given Franklin’s decades in the spotlight as one of the world’s most famous singers. Franklin made her first album at 14, signed with Columbia Records at 18 and went on to record and perform well into her 70s, earning 18 competitive Grammies, a National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. By the time she died in 2018, at age 76, she had sold tens of millions records, scored 20 No. 1 R&B hits and was the first woman 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 tasked not only with portraying the woman whose undisputed nickname was “the Queen of Soul” but also with singing like her — Erivo performed the vocals for Franklin’s tracks. She tried to look at the bigger picture.Erivo, an accomplished singer and songwriter, worked with a vocal coach to capture Franklin’s essence in the studio and onstage. Richard DuCree/National Geographic“I was more interested in telling the story as truthfully as I possibly could, as opposed to mimicking,” Erivo said in a video call last month — though her interpretations are eerily spot on, too.“I would want to know: ‘Where are we right now? What is this coming out of or what are we going into? What is the feeling here?’” she added. Erivo and a vocal coach would begin by trying to zoom in on the finer details of Franklin’s technical virtuosity and her subtle emotional inflections.“Then you let it go,” Erivo continued. “No one wants to watch someone singing analytically. No one wants to watch someone doing the notes. You learn them, you understand them, and then you let that go so that there’s a freedom for it to just move through you.”For Parks, zeroing in on truth in a series called “Genius” began with reflections on the meaning of the word and what it implies. She has, herself, been given that label, having received a MacArthur Fellowship — 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 penned the screenplay for the film “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.”Doing the series was an opportunity, she said, “to talk about Aretha Franklin’s genius, specifically, and what Black female genius might look like.” One important aspect was Franklin’s ability to build bridges, particularly during the Civil Rights era, often alongside Martin Luther King Jr., played by Ethan Henry. (King is the subject of the next season of “Genius.”)Another, which Parks contended was among Franklin’s most distinctive achievements, was the way she “alchemized her pain into sonic gold.”Parks said she drew from “mountains of research” to depict the biographical elements for that alchemy, toggling between Franklin’s adult life and her adolescent past. Central to the story is Franklin’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin (Courtney B. Vance), with whom the young Aretha (played by Shaian Jordan) had a close but complex relationship. The leader of the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, C.L. was a celebrity in his own right and segued smoothly from indulging in earthly delights on Saturdays to preaching heavenly sermons on Sundays.Courtney B. Vance plays Franklin’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, a man of enormous charisma and many contradictions.Richard DuCree/National GeographicAretha was 6 when her mother, a gospel singer and pianist, left C.L. because of his infidelities. (She died four years later.) Left in charge, C.L. cultivated his daughter’s talent and began taking her on rowdy gospel tours from age 12. The reverend could be domineering, but he loved his daughter, whom he affectionately called Little Re, and was supportive; in the series, he surrounds her with enviable role models, including the singer Dinah Washington and the jazz pianist Art Tatum.Still, life as a charismatic preacher’s daughter on the road could be fraught. Little Re had two of her four sons by the time she was 15.“I think I would be a mess if I had a child whilst doing all the things I’m doing right now,” said Erivo. “I don’t know how she did that, because I don’t believe she was ever half-doing anything.”The series doesn’t shy from less savory details of 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 dispute with Aretha after Aretha snatches away some promising material.Getting to the bottom of Franklin’s life has often proved difficult. She left so much out of her autobiography, “From These Roots,” that a frustrated David Ritz, who had been hired to help write it, went on to pen the much more detailed and revealing biography “Respect.” She condemned it as “a very trashy book.” A similarly contentious episode involving a Time cover story is enacted in the show: When the article is published, she feels betrayed by both the journalist and his sources — including her own husband.Aretha Franklin in 2015 at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, singing at a memorial service for her father and brother Cecil, who were ministers there.Elizabeth Conley/Detroit News, via Associated PressAttempts to put Franklin onscreen have been knotty, as well. Franklin sued multiple times to block the release of the Sydney Pollack documentary “Amazing Grace,” which chronicled the recording of her electrifying double-platinum 1972 gospel album of the same name before a live audience at a Baptist church in Los Angeles. (Asked after its wide theatrical release in 2019 why he thought Aretha disliked the film, Chuck Rainey, the bassist on “Amazing Grace,” said he believed the film was too focused on style and the celebrities in the audience, including her father and the singer Clara Ward. “It was like she was wallpaper,” he said.)A public and continuing feud among Franklin’s heirs has continued to muddy the waters since her death. Earlier this year, her son Kecalf Franklin said on Instagram that “Genius” did not have the family’s support. (He has similarly attacked MGM for its long-delayed biopic, “Respect,” scheduled for August, for which Aretha handpicked Jennifer Hudson to star.)However, Brian Grazer, an executive producer of “Genius,” said that before filming started, the production received the endorsement of Aretha Franklin’s estate through its trustee at the time, Sabrina Owens, the singer’s niece. “We had the estate 100 percent on board, and the trustee to the estate granted us this,” he said. (Owens, who resigned as trustee last year, referred queries to the current lawyer for the estate, who did not reply to multiple requests for comment.)Through it all, however, there is the music, which is the central, and perhaps most memorable element of the series — appropriately, given Franklin’s supersized influence on modern music.“She was able to redeploy the melisma by giving us these testimonies about Black womanhood, about Black humanity within the context of the soul-music genre,” said Daphne A. Brooks, the author of “Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound” and a professor of African-American studies at Yale. “It transformed 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 illuminating scenes in “Genius” deal not with Franklin’s private life but with the way the often shy, soft-spoken musician shaped her own work.Aretha Franklin’s drive sometimes created tension with loved ones, including her sister Carolyn (played by Rebecca Naomi Jones, left, with Erivo, Patrice Covington and Erika Jerry).Richard DuCree/National Geographic“When you start getting to know what it takes to make a hit song, to be in a recording studio, to work with musicians who, in the case of Muscle Shoals, are all white men in 1967 — that is a huge, brilliant triumph for her,” Parks said.The full scale of Franklin’s contributions to her own music has long been obscured. She was a gifted songwriter and a superb pianist. In the studio, she was a taskmaster, pushing herself and her collaborators until they captured the exact sound she heard in her head — not easy for a Black female musician of her time. In the series, we see her have to ask to be credited as a producer on her biggest-selling album, “Amazing Grace,” the making of which is given an entire episode.“I knew right when I started this project that that was going to be the place where the magic happened,” Parks said. “The story of ‘Amazing Grace’ revolves around something that is, again, not said. Watching the documentary, which is beautiful, I wanted to know the story behind it.”“Amazing Grace” is pure gospel, which was Franklin’s emotional and spiritual anchor. But the show also demonstrates her uncommon fluency in most dominant genres of her time, including jazz, blues, Tin Pan Alley, funk and pop — “Aretha is Black, female, American,” Parks said, laughing. In her music, as in her activism, Franklin tried to reach as many people as possible. It clearly worked.“This is the stuff, in my opinion, of Black female genius,” Parks said. “She brought people together for the greater good.”

Metals Stocks: Gold edges higher, on track for a second weekly gain

Gold futures edged higher Friday as U.S. Treasury yields steadied after a spike in the previous session and with the yellow metal underpinned by inflation worries and jitters about this week’s slump in equities. “Gold is finding comfort above $1,730 thanks to a dovish Federal Reserve and U.S.-China tensions,” said Lukman Otunuga, senior research analyst at FXTM. “The precious metal remains supported by the cautious market mood while progress on [President Joe] Biden’s stimulus package continues to cushion downside losses.”

“Given how the Federal Reserve has reiterated its stance that interest rates are not going anywhere anytime soon, this bodes well for zero-yielding gold,” he told MarketWatch. However, expectations around Treasury yields rising could “limit the upside potential, especially when factoring how 10-year Treasury yields have posted a new high since January 2020.” Gold for April delivery
GCJ21,
+0.06%
edged up by 60 cents, or 0.03%, to $1,733.10 an ounce on Comex, on track for a 0.8% weekly rise, which would be the second in a row. May silver
SIK21,
-0.50%
was off 18 cents, or 0.7%, at $26.17 an ounce, heading for a 1% weekly rise. Also read: China pollution reduction efforts look set to disrupt iron ore’s rally Treasury yields steadied Friday, with the rate on the 10-year note
TMUBMUSD10Y,
1.728%
around 1.717% after spiking to a 14-month high in the previous session. Bond yields jumped on Thursday after the Fed reinforced a dovish tone to its monetary policy at its meeting on Wednesday but expressed little concern about any tightening of financial conditions. Higher yields can be a negative for gold because they raise the opportunity cost of holding non-yielding assets. “The tug of war continues between rising bond yields (which are weighing on gold) and the nervousness on the stock markets (which is tending to lend support),” wrote analysts at Commerzbank, in a note. Meanwhile, some analysts argue that, despite higher bond yields, gold still has some attraction as an inflation hedge, given the $1.9 trillion fiscal stimulus enacted by the Biden administration this month along with the Fed’s easy money policies which are expected to see U.S. economic growth surge this year. Other metals traded on Comex moved lower Friday, with May copper
HGK21,
-0.40%
down 0.9% at $4.07 a pound, headed for a weekly loss of 1.6%. April platinum
PLJ21,
-2.37%
lost 3.3% to $1,177.80 an ounce, trading 1.8% lower for the week. June palladium
PAM21,
-1.42%
fell nearly 1.9% to $2,613.50 an ounce. Prices were poised to gain more than 10% for the week. They settled Thursday at the highest for a most active contract since February of last year on concerns over tighter supplies.

THE SCOOP | Yannick Nézet-Séguin Breaks Silence On Met Opera’s Treatment Of Musicians

After nearly a year of silence regarding the Metropolitan Opera’s musicians being furloughed without pay, music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin has officially weighed in.In a letter obtained by the New York Times, Nézet-Séguin stated the Met should work towards a deal with musicians or the risk of losing them.According to the Met Orchestra committee, 10 out of 97 musicians have formally left the orchestra since the Met stopped paying them.“Of course, I understand this is a complex situation,” Nézet-Séguin wrote in the letter, “but as the public face of the Met on a musical level, I am finding it increasingly hard to justify what has happened.”“Protecting the long-term future of the Met is inextricably linked with retaining these musicians, and with respecting their livelihoods, their income and their well-being,” Nézet-Séguin added.“The orchestra and chorus are our crown jewels, and they must be protected. Their talent is the Met. The artists of the Met are the institution.”The letter was sent to Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, members of the negotiating committees representing the chorus and orchestra, and Met Opera’s board of directors.The Met replied to the letter stating, “We share Yannick’s frustration over the lengthy closure and the impact it has had on our employees.”This past week, the Met orchestra musicians accepted $1,543 a week on a temporary basis. It made a similar deal with the Met chorus just over a month ago. This marked the first time they have been paid since April 2020.Met Opera musicians were among the last professional organizations to reach a deal to compensate musicians financially amid the pandemic. Despite being furloughed without pay, Met artists were kept on contract, which was viewed as a mandatory unpaid leave rather than layoffs by the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents the chorus and singers.#LUDWIGVANGet the daily arts news straight to your inbox.Sign up for the Ludwig van Daily — classical music and opera in five minutes or less HERE. Michael Vincent is the Editor-in-chief Ludwig Van and CEO of Museland Media. He publishes regularly and writes occasionally. A specialist in digital media for over 15 years, he has worked as a senior editor and is a former freelance classical music critic for the Toronto Star. Michael holds a Doctorate in Music from the University of Toronto.Latest posts by Michael Vincent (see all) Michael Vincent is the Editor-in-chief Ludwig Van and CEO of Museland Media. He publishes regularly and writes occasionally. A specialist in digital media for over 15 years, he has worked as a senior editor and is a former freelance classical music critic for the Toronto Star. Michael holds a Doctorate in Music from the University of Toronto.Latest posts by Michael Vincent (see all)