Cynthia Erivo Caps ‘Genius: Aretha’ Drive-In Premiere With Queen-Worthy Mini-Concert

Chris Willman
·4-min read

Everyone wants concerts to come back. Everyone who attended the premiere event for Nat Geo’s “Genius: Aretha” at the makeshift drive-in in the Rose Bowl parking lot Thursday had a more specific wish: that Cynthia Erivo concerts would come back. Never mind that that really hasn’t much of a thing up till now, with Erivo being too busy with acting gigs to tour. The premiere screening was followed by a taped performance by Erivo, filmed last weekend nearby in an empty Greek Theatre, that made it clear the road and audiences along it will be ready whenever she is.

The end of Erivo’s 20-minute performance met with considerable honking from a car-bound crowd that couldn’t help but momentarily forego the Rose Bowl setting’s rules about laying off the horn. The mini-concert, first revealed in a “Just for Variety” preview, had Erivo arriving on the Greek stage on a mid-century living-room set (complete with an appreciative couple snuggling on the couch), accompanied by pianist Will Wells, in an elegant black gown to sing “Spirit in the Dark,” the title track of Aretha Franklin’s 1970 album for Atlantic.

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Erivo disappeared during a “pastoral interlude” by Wells and reappeared with a red cape — and with glitzier lights, and sans the living room — for two more numbers, Elton John’s “Border Song” and “You’re All I Need to Get By.” That final number was stretched out at beatific length as Erivo took her time offering gratitude for being part of the “Genius” production between relaxed vocal trills, as Wells de-crescendoed in front of the misty, empty auditorium.

As an EG-T — an EGOT minus one — Erivo already has a daytime Emmy in her quiver but will likely be in the conversation for a nighttime one after “Genius: Aretha” premieres as a four-night event starting March 21 on Nat Geo (with a Hulu berth following shortly thereafter). Thursday’s premiere included only the first of the four hours in the series but, with scenes portraying Franklin beginning to record with producer Jerry Wexler (David Cross) for Atlantic in 1967 bookending 1957 childhood scenes focusing on the influence of her not-always-holy pastor father, C.L. Franklin (Courtney B. Vance), the wide scope of the series — scripted by Suzan-Lori Parks — was well set in play.

Guests arriving at the Rose Bowl were given pink feather boas and given the option of pulling cars up in front of a glittery “Genius” backdrop — while remaining in their cars — as a premiere photo opp. A pink Cadillac was parked in front of the screen for further photo opportunities for sufficiently masked pedestrians (and pulled away before the film started, lest it become too irresistible a distraction).

The event was produced by New York’s Little Cinema for virtual screenings held around the country as well as at the Rose Bowl. None of the principals made personal appearances, only taped ones, in a pre-show half-hour that had Imagine Television’s Brian Grazer doing the official introduction from his home office, followed by Vance singing the praises of his costar’s singing: “That voice in that small frame is so powerful there is an unlimited vocal talent within her. It was a pure joy to be able to witness Cynthia’s tremendous vocal talents on set. She literally took our breath away.”

A series of filmed performances included Marquis Hill doing a solo trumpet version of “Rock Steady” on stage at the Apollo; Bill Moss. Jr. and the Detroit Youth All-Star Choir doing a choral “Until You Come Back”; costar Antonique Smith looking as glamorous as anyone belting out “How Great Thou Art” a cappella ever has; Afropunk, also a cappella, doing “Amazing Grace” Zoom-style; C-Live, a vocal/band effort assembled at the Clive David Institute at the Tisch School for the Arts at NYU, doing a remotely assembled “Spirit in the Dark”; and, in the biggest bait for honking prior to Erivo’s climactic appearance, costars Patrice Covington and Rebecca Naomi Jones putting on their earbuds and singing along boisterously to an unheard-to-us track of “Son of a Preacher Man.”

For her post-screening appearance, Erivo dropped some of the Franklin vocal mannerisms she adopted for her performance in the film — and certainly all of her look, as she was unrecognizable from her filmic role with closely cropped blond hair and un-1967-like piercings — but the extent to which she recalled Aretha anyway was testament not only to the actor’s vocal power and range but the vast influence that the Queen of Soul wields on almost any skilled singer in a pop or R&B idiom today.

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