Nat Geo’s ‘Genius: Aretha’: Cynthia Erivo Is Singing All Her Songs Live to Camera

The "Genius" franchise will return to the Emmy fray on May 25th with its latest installment.
Cynthia Erivo Aretha Franklin
Cynthia Erivo in "Genius: Aretha"
National Geographic/Richard DuCree

Taking a page out of Netflix’s playbook, National Geographic will premiere “Genius: Aretha” just before the Emmy qualifying deadline. “Genius” Season 3, starring Cynthia Erivo as the legendary musician, has set a Memorial Day 2020 release date, debuting four episodes on consecutive nights starting Monday, May 25.

Those four episodes are key. Emmy rules require at least half of the season’s episodes to air on or before May 31, and “Genius: Aretha” runs eight episodes. That means the new season will get in just under the wire by hitting its midway mark on May 29. National Geographic Global Television Networks President Courteney Monroe made the announcement from the TCA stage in Pasadena and said the series just started production, so the team shooting in Atlanta will be pushing to finish final cuts in the next few months.

Directed and executive produced by Anthony Hemingway, who also serves as producing director on the episodes he’s not helming personally, “Genius: Aretha” is written by Tony-winner Suzan-Lori Parks and is the only authorized scripted biography to tell the Queen of Soul’s story.

Per Nat Geo’s official synopsis, the season will “explore Franklin’s musical genius and incomparable career, and the immeasurable impact and lasting influence she has had on music and culture around the world. ‘Genius: Aretha’ will alternate between present-day storylines and scenes from her youth, focusing on her childhood and the pivotal events that influenced her career as an adult.”

Nat Geo’s “Genius” franchise has proven to be an awards magnet. The first season, focused on Albert Einstein and starring Geoffrey Rush, earned 10 Emmy nominations, while the follow-up starring Antonio Banderas as Pablo Picasso won two Emmys, in addition to its five other nominations. Both Rush and Banderas were nominated for Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards, as well.

Joining Erivo in the cast and on the TCA panel via satellite were Shaian Jordan, who plays Aretha Franklin as the young, shy, immensely talented daughter of a celebrated Detroit preacher; said preacher is Clarence LaVaugh, played by Emmy-winner Courtney B. Vance (“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story), who thrusts Aretha into the spotlight when she’s just a child. She took inspiration from her father’s popular sermons, which were published and aired on a weekly radio show, in addition to his national tours and public appearances.

Meanwhile, there’s another Aretha Franklin project in the works with awards aspirations of its own: “Respect,” a feature film starring Academy Award-winner Jennifer Hudson, is slated for later this year. Liesl Tommy’s movie co-stars Forest Whitaker, Mary J. Blige, Tituss Burgess, Audra McDonald, Marlon Wayans, and Marc Maron.

When asked about the two projects arriving so close together, the cast and crew expressed nothing but gratitude that more than one story would be told about the singing legend.

“I haven’t spoken to Jennifer personally, but I did send her a congratulations,” Erivo said. “To have someone like Aretha, and to have a moment where we can tell her story more than once, is kind of amazing.”

“We have eight hours and they have two hours,” Parks said about the differences between the two projects. “We’re so excited. The Queen of Soul deserves all the love and attention the world can shower on her. If there were 100 projects, that would be even better.”

As for the performance itself, Erivo — an Oscar-nominated singer and songwriter herself — said she plans to sing all her songs live during the shoot.

“The rumor is true: I do sing live on set, and I think I’ll be singing live consistently,” Erivo said. “Anthony is a glutton for it, and it allows me to connect with her. I can be open and vulnerable with her. [..] It’s there in the words and the music, in the way I have to sing it, so it’s a gift to me to be able to sing live on set.”

“It’s a gift to all of us,” Hemingway said. “She mesmerizes all of us on set. She’s a genius in and of herself.”

“Genius: Aretha” premieres Monday, May 25 at 10 p.m. ET on National Geographic. 

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