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.
“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.