How a TV crew meticulously re-created Aretha Franklin’s extraordinary life

A new show dedicated to the Queen of Soul meticulously reproduced the trail the singer blazed—down to the studio switchboards and sequined gowns.

Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin plays at a small club with few patrons in the early days. She still gave it her all, singing “Rockabye Your Baby,” even though her first husband, Ted White, was applauding more than anyone else.
Photograph by Richard DuCree, National Geographic Channel

As the moon rose high over Atlanta, background actors milled about in rust-colored elephant bell bottoms and Qiana shirts. It had been a long and productive day, as the National Geographic series Genius: Aretha shot the sixth episode in which the Queen of Soul records the “Amazing Grace” live album.

In a little while, it would be Friday, March 13, and the pandemic would shutter much of the country, including this production. However, on this warm night as executive producer and director Anthony Hemingway leaned against a 1972 Ford Gran Torino, no one knew that yet.

Hemingway began the day reflecting on the anthology series, which each season focuses on a genius who changed the world, first Einstein, then Picasso, and now Aretha Franklin. Unlike the first two subjects, however, Franklin was someone most of us feel connected to. Who hasn’t (wrongly) thought they could sing along with her?

The season airs over four consecutive evenings on Nat Geo beginning March 21, running on Hulu the next day, with the full series on the streaming service March 25, Franklin’s birthday. (Watch the series trailer here.)

Making these eight hours of television required a small army of people from carpenters to wig makers. In a documentary, filmmakers can merely assemble old footage. Everything for Genius: Aretha had to be created. Producers, directors, writers, actors, and craftspeople told us how they did it.

Like everyone involved in this massive project, Hemingway immersed himself in Franklin’s life. And like everyone, he came to it with her songs deeply embedded in him.

“I remember in the Bronx, my parents cutting a rug to her songs,” Hemingway said. “I still dance to ‘Rock Steady.’ It is my jam. I’m so happy I directed that episode because I love it so much. Cynthia absolutely slays it. I was constantly in awe watching her perform. Aretha is someone she studied. How fluidly she enters her spirit is transformative. The crew was mesmerized watching her. It’s even hard for the camera operators to do what they have to do; everybody wants to stop and listen.” (These songs defined Aretha Franklin’s record-breaking career.)

Cynthia Erivo does slay every song and portrays Franklin as self-contained, shy. True, Erivo, a Tony, Emmy, and Grammy Award winner, does not look like Franklin, but about three seconds into the eight hours that’s forgotten. What’s apparent is how she channels Franklin, even though she’s not trying to impersonate her.

“I’ve been listening to her music over and over,” Erivo said. “The thing she does with her voice, they are signature things. I have been learning and listening to her speak and trying to delve into that. Whenever I find an issue, I pull in my vocal coach.”

“Just listening to her music really helps and puts me where I need to be—switching everything else off and focusing in that moment,” Erivo said. “Especially when on set with someone else, it is really about trying to respond to what you are given. I try to turn Cynthia off and find out where Aretha might have been.”  

Erivo’s focus was palpable as the set grew silent. As Aretha, she stormed out of a storefront church on Atlanta’s Abernathy Boulevard. The street was closed except to vintage cars and pick-ups brought in for the production. Sure, it’s a scripted drama, but historical accuracy is crucial. A tremendous amount of behind-the-scenes work made everything look authentic— the right cars, sets, props, makeup, and clothes.

So much of that came from the room where it all really does happen—the wardrobe department. Even background actors did not get on camera until Jennifer Bryan, costume designer, approved. Bryan, who grew up in Jamaica loving Aretha, oversaw a massive project.

She and her staff of 12 rented, designed, sewed, or bought at least 4,000 costumes. Bryan’s domain stretched a city block and was stacked with racks of clothes, some suspended from the ceiling. All were precisely organized into decades, then sizes. Bryan extracted hats pristinely stored in hatboxes from stores that no longer exist and gently displayed hand-beaded gowns. Bolts of fabric Bryan had printed overseas, a riot of 1970s colors and designs, were stacked near sewing machines. Among the unexpected finds in this hub was a vintage dress in different sizes.

“Aretha played piano,” Bryan said. “Cynthia doesn’t play, and when she sits at the piano, I have to dress the double.”

While Genius: Aretha might not seem a period piece, given that she died in 2018, everything was made or sourced to reflect eras from the 1940s, before Franklin was born, through the late 1990s. Certainly Bryan knew these styles, yet she still pored over thousands of photos. Bryan needed to ensure she was re-creating clothes precisely, from the sequined gowns with ostrich feathers Aretha took bows in, to the cotton dresses and cardigans she threw on while puttering around the kitchen.

The behind-the-scenes research was so thorough, prop master Kevin Ladson tracked down Franklin’s fried chicken recipe.

“It was typical breading, salt, paprika, pepper, crushed basil, a double batter,” Ladson said. “I made it, and it was so good. We tried to get her recipe for pigs’ feet. Anthony had a recipe. I gathered that she liked to cook for her family.”

His touches include creating packs of Franklin’s Kool cigarettes, matching how the packaging changed over the years. He also sketched fashion designs for a portfolio belonging to Ken Cunningham, one of Aretha’s serious beaus. When Ladson drew these designs, trying to get into Cunningham’s mindset, he had no idea if even a glimpse of these would make it into the series. They do.

Ladson and Bryan separately described this as a dream job; the Queen of Soul’s music means that much to them. Yet, as thorough as the research was in all aspects of the production, sometimes the result had to be best guesses.

“We know what the outside of the house is like,” Tim Galvin, production designer, said, referring to the Franklin homestead in Detroit. “But the inside is anybody’s guess. There was very little to go on.”

His team found a house in Atlanta closely resembling the Franklins’ Detroit house and replaced its windows. On a sprawling set, workers created interior rooms from bedrooms to Manhattan apartments.

Here, her father’s office is a muted den with a large wooden desk, books about the Bible on bookshelves, and reproductions of framed documents made out to the reverend hang on the walls. The same care can be seen in Aretha’s sons’ bedroom, decorated with Tinkertoys and Hardy Boys books. The living room holds a Steinway grand and an engraving on the mantle, Psalm 137: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” An Underwood typewriter rests on a desk in the sunroom, and the kitchen features a Frigidaire with rounded edges.

All told, Galvin estimated the production used at least 30 locations per episode, totaling about 250 sets. The recording studio replicating Atlantic Records is a striking design feat. The equipment includes a reclaimed control board replete with rows of dials and switches, set up precisely as it had been when Franklin cut records on the label beginning in 1967. The office of the hit-making producer Jerry Wexler, who worked with her on “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” and “Think” has overflowing ashtrays and framed posters of The Drifters and Ray Charles. This is where the magic happened, and you half expect to hear Franklin belting or her back-up musicians trying yet another way to perfect the sound.

One of those musicians was sax wizard and bandleader King Curtis. Marque Richardson, portraying Curtis, took his role so seriously that he tried to learn to play. By his account, he couldn’t, but he looks as if he can blow a mean sax and that extra bit of prep helped.

Those working on Genius have listened to Franklin constantly, and no one was complaining. Creator Suzan-Lori Parks—a musician, the first Black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama, and a bona fide genius herself having been awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant—started work on this more than two years ago.

She was at Sundance when executive producer Brian Grazer FaceTimed her. “‘Want to do Genius: Aretha?’” he asked. It felt right to accept the job as showrunner, creator, head writer, and executive producer. After all, Franklin had approached Parks a decade earlier, interested in collaborating on a stage musical. While she worked, Parks listened. “I have vinyl, Spotify, MP3,” she said. “On every device I have, I am listening to her.”

During interviews in Los Angeles and Atlanta, Parks explained how she wrote four of the eight hours of scripts and worked on others. Although she has tackled other complicated projects—writing a novel, a play a day for an entire year—this was different because she was constantly involved in all details of the production. Parks kept her aim clear: “We will show you the spirit behind the songs,” she promised.

The anthology series reveals the world Franklin was born into in 1942, and how through talent and determination, she became a superstar. “I read ‘Respect’ and could not put it down and could not stop talking about it,” said Courtney B. Vance, who portrays the Rev. C.L. Franklin. (Discover how pain and passion shaped Franklin's genius.)

The series gave the Tony and Emmy winner a chance to sing on camera for the first time. Growing up eight doors down from Motown’s Hitsville, U.S.A., in Detroit, where the Franklins were royalty, Vance understood Aretha’s world.

“You were in church all day,” he said. “It was an absolute world.”

The series reveals Franklin’s foibles as well as her genius. Sometimes she drank too much or stuck with the wrong man for too long. She could be selfish and oblivious to her sisters’ feelings. Both of her sisters also sang, and egos were bruised along the way, especially because Aretha was always their dad’s favorite. 

Ultimately, they were sisters, and director Neema Barnette wanted to make sure their love came across. She suggested to Parks that they have some onscreen bonding time, sharing meals, chatting, laughing. There’s an intimacy and sweetness to scenes shared by sisters, especially around the piano.

Helping to set that mood is Kevin McKnight, director of photography. When Franklin feels safe in the Detroit house or one of her increasingly fancier homes, the tones are warm. And when she’s struggling, fighting with her first husband, unsure if she’ll ever chart with a hit, the tones cool.

“Anthony’s dictate from right upfront is he wanted it to be very definitive on timelines,” McKnight said. And with each period, he custom-blended colors to help move viewers into new times. “Color plays a lot for us in telling our audience how to feel.”

When Little Re, as her family and friends called her, has her first solo in New Bethel Baptist Church, the screen transitions from black and white to color, and it’s impossible not to think of The Wizard of Oz, which Hemingway and McKnight acknowledge. Incidentally, newcomer Shaian Jordan, who plays young Aretha, also sang her first solo in church.

Little Re’s world exploded in vibrant color because she found her voice. Even in a family brimming with talent, the Franklins knew all along that Aretha’s gift was special. As a child, she had the remarkable ability to hear a song and sing it back note for note, a talent she retained. When Franklin saw Erivo in The Color Purple on Broadway, Franklin visited her backstage and sang “I’m Here,” which she had just heard Erivo sing.

Franklin could sing anything—who else could fill in for Pavarotti on no notice? When he fell ill and couldn’t perform at the 1998 Grammys, the Queen of Soul stole the show belting his signature aria, “Nessun dorma.” Franklin proved her genius as she effortlessly segued from gospel to soul, pop, and even disco, which she didn’t love. Still, the soundtrack for Genius could not be limited to Franklin’s hits; it needed to reflect the music of her life.

“It was almost like continuity to make everything authentic to what the music was at that era for different periods,” explained Raphael Saadiq, executive music producer. “How you see it in the film, you see the wardrobe and shots and a continuity on set, and you make sure you are keeping that continuity and authenticity.

The power of Franklin's artistry and her soaring voice, which could hold a note until she damned well felt like letting it go, remains etched into our collective memory. When she lost herself in a song, those who saw her perform reach back to those moments that remind us why music exists.

Terence Blanchard, series composer, approached this with the awe fellow musicians have for this force of nature who could hear the slightest variation in a note. He drew from decades of experience, including working with Franklin on Malcolm X and in concert at the Detroit Jazz Festival. Blanchard used well-known songs and additional music.

“The music exists,” Blanchard said. “That’s all handled by the music she is actually performing. What I try to do is, it is about Aretha, and we are looking at her life. The score has to be that safety blanket, that constant thing that reminds us that this is a tale about Aretha. The music can’t go all over the place when there are things being told about her as a young kid. Musically, I can pick those phrases, and emotionally, you will make the connection. My job is to be that constant, the conscious, driving force behind her personality that can be seen from beginning to end.”

All of it—subdued piano chords and brassy lead-ins to disco, church hymns, and pop hits—are woven in, as is a profound respect for Franklin. Yes, the song that came to be Franklin’s anthem, one of a woman fed up with a man, resonates throughout. Still, that’s what the behind-the-scenes work proves: endless respect for the Queen of Soul.

“Back in the day when you only had three networks, whenever she was on TV, we all gathered around, waiting for her to sing,” Blanchard recalled.

Today, with thousands of choices, everyone involved hopes the Aretha allure remains powerful.

“Knowing our mission, the true message, and the story we are telling gives us great joy and passion,” Hemingway said. “Like her music, this story will connect with viewers.” 

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