Aretha Franklin: Nat Geo’s “Genius” Move

Nat Geo anthology series “Genius” is following up seasons about Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso with an installment, premiering on March 21, focused on the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. Nat Geo’s Carolyn Bernstein, Executive Vice President Global Scripted Content and Documentary Films, explains how the show’s subjects are selected, and how familiar stories are made fresh.

How did you choose Aretha Franklin for this season?

When we choose a subject for Genius we ask a few key questions: Was their contribution to society innovative and trailblazing?  Did it have lasting, global impact?  And did they continuously innovate over the course of their lives?  
Based on those criteria, choosing Aretha Franklin was a no-brainer: She was a musical prodigy who constantly reinvented her sound and the sound of soul music in the process, and her music continues to touch people’s hearts all over the world and will do so for generations to come. We also loved the idea of how many first she embodied for the Genius franchise: The first woman, the first mother, the first African-American.

What advice do you have for producers of biographical series?

Do your homework! For “Genius: Aretha” we worked with many people who knew Aretha well — from music mogul Clive Davis to representatives of her family’s estate — to make sure we told her story in an honest and authentic way.    

What will viewers be surprised to learn about Aretha Franklin? 

I think viewers will be surprised that she wasn’t classically trained. She didn’t know how to read or write music but her musical genius flourished, nonetheless. She also had considerable personal and professional obstacles which she navigated with grit and grace on her journey to become The Queen of Soul .

How do you find new stories to tell about public figures?

For the “Genius” anthology series, we first look for the world’s most brilliant and fascinating innovators and then we think deeply about the big themes of their lives.  We’re always looking for subjects whose personal lives and professional achievements intertwine, connect, conflict and uplift.

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