Aretha Franklin, played by Cynthia Erivo, recording at Fame Studios...

Aretha Franklin, played by Cynthia Erivo, recording at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in a scene from "Genius: Aretha." Credit: National Geographic/Richard DuCree

LIMITED SERIES "Genius: Aretha"

WHEN|WHERE Sunday-Wednesday at 9 p.m. on NatGeo

WHAT IT'S ABOUT This third installment in NatGeo's "Genius" series begins with Aretha Franklin's (Cynthia Erivo, "Harriet," Broadway's "The Color Purple'') struggle to find a new sound by the mid-1960s, with the help of Jerry Wexler (David Cross), a partner at Atlantic Records, and her husband/manager Ted White (Malcolm Barrett). It then cuts to her early life growing up in Detroit, where her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin (Courtney B. Vance) is pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church. He quickly learns his daughter (Shaian Jordan) has an extraordinary talent; she quickly learns he's an abusive womanizer.

The eight-parter was directed by Anthony Hemingway ("The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story") and produced by Suzan-Lori Parks (screenwriter for, most recently, "The United States vs. Billie Holiday").

MY SAY Biopics tend to get a bad rap because we call them "biopics." Any TV show that can be reduced to a contraction (biographical picture) can then be reduced to a formula which is then a hop, skip and a jump away from cliché. NatGeo's first two editions of "Genius" (Einstein, Picasso) hopped- skipped-and-jumped right into that trap.

Clearly, the network had to go in a different direction here and has. Rather than biopic, "Aretha" is part performance, part spectacle, part celebration. It's set against the moment and within the moment, the Civil Rights one. The period details had to be just right (and are) but especially the musical ones — that blend of gospel with R&B that makes soul so unique.

"Aretha" has managed all this, plus a little more. This isn't some facsimile of a famous life, but an interpretation of one. Along with the showrunners, Erivo has plenty of ideas about that life, but knows how to express them musically.

Because Franklin's artistry evolved from gospel to soul, with plenty of stops in between, Erivo has to make each one of them. These cover Franklin's early attempts to out-Lena Lena Horne, and as a singer of bland show tunes or shopworn Hoagy Carmichael hits (like "Skylark," on her first appearance on Steve Allen's "Tonight Show"). Erivo's voice is beautiful and expressive in these early attempts, but also soulless — the essential ingredient gone missing. That arrives by the middle of Monday's third episode, with "A Change Is Gonna Come," Franklin's rousing Civil Rights anthem (penned by Sam Cooke) performed for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the mid-60s.

"Aretha'' explores that idea of metamorphosis, musically and otherwise, in almost every frame. The early scenes of her life in the church, for example, are filmed in black-and-white but morph into color when a young Aretha gives the congregants a taste of what's to come. It's a trick as old as "The Wizard of Oz," but particularly effective here because Franklin was all about change.

Sunday's opener gets right to that point. Unsure of her musical direction, unsteady in her tastes, those coalesce after arriving at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in the early '60s. To her surprise, or rather shock, her backup band is white but Erivo's Franklin is adaptive and shrewd. She knows where she has to go and who to use to get there.

Meanwhile, her manager and first husband — abusive, impulsive, at times brutal — has his own ideas too, and nearly scuttles those early sessions.

But Erivo's Aretha is never a victim. "Aretha!," said Wexler upon first meeting her. She corrects him: "It's Miss Franklin." That's right, Jerry. The Queen of Soul, too. Erivo takes special care to protect that legacy.

BOTTOM LINE Beautiful production, first-rate performances, notably the one that counts most — Erivo's.

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