Television Reviews : PBS Series Profiles Singer Aretha Franklin

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In addition to being one of the premier voices to emerge from popular music in the last 30 years, Aretha Franklin is one of its great mysteries. A fiercely private woman who guards her interior life with a steely gaze that cuts like a laser, Franklin has eluded the prying questions of journalists for years, and she succeeds yet again in revealing little of herself in the profile that airs tonight at 9 on KCET Channel 28.

Presented as part of the “American Masters” series, “Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul” offers ample proof of Franklin’s right to that title but affords little insight into exactly what it is that fuels this exquisite sound machine.

“Aretha has always had terrible luck with men,” observes the late John Hammond, the producer credited with discovering her. That hardly seems an adequate explanation for the aura of deep sadness that’s hovered around Franklin since she first conquered the soul scene in 1967. Beautifully at ease within the confines of her music, Franklin appears to have an unshakable faith in her talent, yet she’s never seemed comfortable with her position as a public figure or seemed truly at ease onstage.


This is evident in the abundance of choice performance clips that punctuate the show, but none of Frankin’s colleagues who offer testimonies of respect--Smokey Robinson, Keith Richard, Dick Gregory, Eric Clapton, Dionne Warwick and Whitney Houston are among them--comment on the potentially darker aspects of Franklin’s life or work. That she’d had two children by the time she was 17, that her father was shot by a burglar in 1979 and lay in a coma for five years prior to his death in 1984--biographical bummers such as this are given but a cursory mention.

The show charts Franklin through the years as she struggles to discover how to best present her voice, her involvement with the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s, her years as a ‘60s hit-maker and her recent return to commercial success with slick, ‘80s dance music.

In a particularly mesmerizing clip we see her alone at the piano performing the R&B; chestnut “Dr. Feelgood,” and it’s clear that the glorious music Franklin makes is simply not of this earth. As far as Franklin’s thoughts on how and why it comes through her--she’s not talking.