How a TV crew carefully recreates the incredible life of Aretha Franklin.
The trail the singer glamorized down to the studio shutters and sequin clothes was repeated in a new display devoted to the Queen of Soul.
When the moon was high over Atlanta, the bottom of the rust-colored elephant bell and the shirt of Qiana were milled. It's been a long, fruitful day since Aretha shot the sixth episode of the National Geographic Series Genius in which the Queen of Soul records the song "Amazing Grace."
In a short time, it would be Friday, March 13, and much of the world, including this development, would be shut by the pandemic. But on this warm night, when Anthony Hemingway, managing producer and director, leaned on a 1972 Ford Gran Torino, none knew that yet.
Hemingway started the day of focusing on the series of anthologies focused on the genius who changed the world every season: first Einstein, then Picasso and now Aretha Franklin. However, unlike the first two, Franklin was someone with whom most of us felt associated. Who didn't (wrongly) think they should sing with her?
The season will be on Nat Geo for four consecutive nights from March 21st, on Hulu the next day, with the entire streaming collection. 25 March, the birthday of Franklin.
The eight-hour TV needed a small army of carpenters and perpetrators. Filmmakers can only assemble old footage in a documentary. All for Genius: Aretha must have been made. We were told how producers, directors, writers, actors and craftsmen did.
Like all else, Hemingway immersed himself in the life of Franklin. And like everything, with her songs profoundly rooted in her, he came to it.
"My parents cut out a rug to their songs in the Bronx, I recall," Hemingway said. "I'm still dancing to 'Rock Steady.' This is my jam. It is my jam. I'm so glad I've been heading the episode because I really enjoy it. Cynthia slays it completely. I was still fascinated to watch her act. Anyone she studied is Aretha. How fluidly her spirit joins is transforming. The crew was hypocritical in watching her. It's also difficult for cameras to do what they have to do; everybody wants to sit and listen." (These songs defined the record-breaking career of Aretha Franklin.)
Cynthia Erivo kills every song and depicts Franklin as self-contained, shy. True, Erivo, the winner of Tony, Emmy and Grammy Award does not look like Franklin, but in the eight hours that is overlooked for only three seconds. What's obvious, though she doesn't try to impersonate her, is how she canals Franklin.
"I listened over and over to her songs," Erivo said. "The thing she's doing with her voice is signature stuff. I learned and listened to her and tried to get into it. I pull my vocal coach whenever I find a problem."
"It helps me to listen to her music and to bring me where I need to be—switching away everything else and concentrating in that moment," said Erivo. "It really is about trying to react to what you're given, particularly when you're with someone else. I'm trying to toggle off Cynthia and discover where Aretha may have been."
The attention of Erivo was tangible as the set became silent. Like Aretha, she stormed from the church on Abernathy Boulevard in Atlanta. The street was closed except for the development of antique cars and pick-ups. Sure, it's a drama, but it's important to have historical accuracy. A massive amount of work behind the scenes made it all look real — right cars, sets, costumes, maquillages and clothing.
That came so much from the room where something actually happens — the wardrobe department. And background actors did not reach the camera until the approval of the costume designer Jennifer Bryan. Bryan, who grew up loving Aretha in Jamaica, was responsible for a huge project.
She and her twelve personnel were renting, designing, sewing or buying at least four thousand costumes. Bryan's empire stretched out over a city block and was lined with clothing racks, some suspended from the ceiling. All were arranged precisely in decades, then in sizes. Bryan removed hats pristine from shops which no longer exist and showed hand perforated clothes in hatboxes. Bryan fabric bolts, a riot of 1970s colors and designs printed abroad, were kept near sewing machines. One of the surprising discoveries in this hub was a different size vintage dress.
"Aretha was playing piano," said Bryan. "Cynthia does not dance, and I have to dress the double when she sits on the piano."
Although Genius: Aretha may not seem like a generation, because she died in 2018, everything came or came from the 1940s, before Franklin was born, until the end of the 90s. Bryan certainly knew these styles, but she nevertheless shot thousands of pictures. Bryan wanted to ensure that she was precisely re-creating clothing, from sequin clothes with ostrich feathers, to cotton dresses and cardigans, which she threw around her kitchen.
The research behind the scenes was so extensive that prop master Kevin Ladson monitored the fried chicken recipe of Franklin.
"Typical flour, salt, paprika, pepper, basil smashed, double batter," Ladson said. "I've done it, and it's been so sweet. We tried to get her pig's feet recipe. Anthony had a recipe. A recipe. I gathered that she wanted her family to cook."
He creates packets of Franklin's Kool cigarettes that correspond to how the packaging evolved over the years. He also designed fashion designs for a product portfolio belonging to Aretha's serious beautiful Ken Cunningham. When Ladson drew these sketches to Cunningham's mind, he had no idea whether or not it would become part of the series. They do. They do.
Ladson and Bryan identified it separately as a dream job; music from the Queen of Soul means to them so much. However, however extensive research was in all aspects of the development, the findings had to often be best conjectures.
"We know how the exterior of the house is," said Tim Galvin, the builder of the Franklin house in Detroit. "But everybody's guess inside. Very little had to move on."
In Atlanta his team found a house closely resembling the Detroit House of the Franklins and removed its windows. On a large scale, staff built rooms from bedrooms to apartments in Manhattan.