It’s official — the upcoming third season of National Geographic’s scripted anthology series Genius will be devoted to the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, who died in August at age 76. The announcement was made Sunday at TCA.
Suzan-Lori Parks, Pulitzer Prize award-winning playwright of Topdog/Underdog, will be executive producer and showrunner of the project, from Imagine Television and Fox 21 TV Studios. Music mogul and longtime Franklin collaborator Clive Davis as well as Atlantic Records chairman and CEO Craig Kallman also executive produce.
Genius was renewed for a third season in April, with author Mary Shelley revealed as its subject, to follow Albert Einstein and Picasso. The Mary Shelley story remains in consideration for future installments of the anthology series.
The idea of doing a Franklin-centered Genius came together quickly following the music icon’s August 16 death, spearheaded by Imagine’s Brian Grazer. The project had been moving full steam ahead since, with securing access to Franklin’s music considered the one key element that would clinch a green light. Bringing David, Kallman and Warner Music Group on board was very important in that aspect, with the producers currently able to use about 80% of Franklin’s catalog and working to secure the remaining titles.
Imagine Entertainment has partnered with Warner Music for this third season, which will again be executive produced by Imagine’s Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Francie Calfo; Gigi Pritzker and Rachel Shane (MWM Studios); and Sam Sokolow (EUE/Sokolow). Imagine’s Anna Culp will serve as producer alongside Peter Afterman.
Ken Biller, who served as executive producer/showrunner on the Einstein and Picasso seasons (as well as the planned Shelley one), returns as executive producer.
The production will feature many of Franklin’s biggest recordings and hit songs from the comprehensive Warner Music catalog including “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” “Chain of Fools,” “Don’t Play That Song,” “Since You’ve Been Gone” and “Baby I Love You.” In addition, the series will feature Franklin’s performances of “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me,” “Freeway of Love” and “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves.”
Filming will start this summer for an early 2020 premiere on National Geographic Channels in 172 countries and 43 languages.
“Aretha Franklin had the ability to empower generations through her iconic music, and I’m excited to finally be able to tell her story, a career passion of mine. All through her life she used her voice to elevate people and the causes she believed in, especially the women’s and civil rights movements,” said Grazer. “You can hear the hopes and sorrows of a divided nation in her soulful voice, penetrating and motivating people at their core in a deeply emotional way. She cut through the pain of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination to help heal and unite America with her music and, in the process, ushered in the post-gospel era of rhythm and blues. We’re so grateful she shared her genius with the world.”
Davis worked with Franklin for decades. He spoke at the singer’s funeral and has been organizing a big Aretha Franklin tribute concert.
“Aretha and I shared a 40-year friendship, ever since she cooked me dinner to talk about working together to reinvigorate her career,” he said . “I am forever grateful to have had the opportunity to collaborate with her and her incredible instrument. She was a gift to the world, one that will last for many generations. I am thrilled to be celebrating her genius with Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Imagine.”
The anthology series will explore Franklin’s musical genius, incomparable career and the immeasurable impact and lasting influence she had around the world. Grammy Award winner Franklin was a gospel prodigy and outspoken civil rights champion and is widely considered to be the greatest singer of her generation, receiving countless honors throughout her career.
Without knowing how to read music, Franklin taught herself to play the piano, began to record songs and sang on gospel tours with her father. She signed her first record deal at age 18 with Columbia Records before moving to Atlantic Records and then Arista, where she was united with founder Davis and began a more than 40-year partnership with him. The legendary singer is one of the world’s best-selling musical artists of all time, with more than 75 million records sold globally during her career. Her voice was identified as a “natural resource” by her home state of Michigan.
“Since that day 52 years ago, when Aretha Franklin entered a recording studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, sat down at the piano, and recorded her first track for Atlantic Records, music was changed forever. She took the roots of gospel and R&B, and imbued them with unprecedented originality, spirit, and depth,” said Kallman. “Through her talent and her humanity, Aretha transformed people and cultures across the globe. Her Atlantic recordings form a phenomenal body of work that has entered the timeless musical canon, and we’re deeply proud to be a part of her extraordinary legacy. Warner Music Group is honored to be partnering with Ron, Brian, and the team at Imagine, along with Clive Davis, to tell the story of Aretha’s genius.”
Tony award-winning Parks is the first African-American woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize in Drama, for the 2001 play “Topdog/Underdog.” Her other work includes “In the Blood” (Pulitzer Prize finalist), “The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess” (Tony Award winner), “Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 and 3” (Pulitzer Prize finalist) and “Unchain My Heart: The Ray Charles Musical.” Most recently, she wrote the screenplay for the feature film “Native Son,” which was acquired by HBO in advance of its premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
Imagine has done multiple projects about iconic music artists, including the award-winning documentary The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years, the film Get On Up about James Brown and the scripted series Wu-Tang: An American Saga.