How ‘Genius: Aretha’ Recreated the Queen of Soul’s Fillmore West Concert

In March 1971, Aretha Franklin took the stage at the Fillmore West in San Francisco to deliver a concert that was then turned into the Queen of Soul’s third live album. Video footage from that concert is in black and white and grainy at best, due to the technology available at the time. For the fifth episode of National Geographic’s “Genius: Aretha,” though, the talented artisans behind the limited series brought Franklin’s (played by Cynthia Erivo) vibrant voice to life in equally bright colors and textures with a recreation of her cover of Diana Ross’ “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).”

Jen Ross
Music supervisor
“Her performance of ‘Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),’ where she is embraced by a counterculture audience is an impactful and truthful moment. Additionally, the song performance allows for a respectful bow to King Curtis, who not only played with her at the Fillmore, but was such a predominant presence as a saxophone player in her early Atlantic recordings. The ultimate goal was to evoke the essence of Aretha Franklin, rather than set out to make carbon copy sound-alikes. The biggest challenge on this specific clearance was more focused on keeping the approvals active for an extended timeline as the world went on pause. We originally secured the clearance back in early 2020, as the scene was shot in March in 2020 right before production was temporarily halted due to the pandemic.”

Jennifer L. Bryan
Costume designer
“I found one color photo of the Fillmore West [look] and I was able to come as close as I could to that. It was a peachy, apricot gown that she wore and that knitted cap, so that if you wore locks you would wear a cap you could tuck all your locks into. I could tell by the draping of the dress, the weight of the fabric and what type of fabric it probably is and what type of cut it is. When I looked at that dress, I knew it was a knit just by the way it draped on her and definitely a mid-weight. The drapery was very liquid and had deep folds. The hat I had specially knitted. There’s a knitter that I work with and I sent her the research photos and I took Cynthia’s head measurements and scale and all of that [for it].”

Anthony Hemingway
Director, executive producer
“When Aretha gets emotional from the energy that’s vibrating through the crowd due to the transferring of love from her music, the connections Aretha masterfully helped create and her ability to bring people together, I wanted that moment to express Aretha’s humanity and humility. That required multiple setups of multiple cameras as well as a setup with one camera that could get up close and personal. This sequence was an example of that saying, ‘When the spirit hits you and you gotta move.’ Cynthia tapped into the truth of the moment and the river of emotions started flowing. Thankfully, we had a great crowd of background artists that participated in giving her the love that she/we needed, combined with having a great camera operator who knows how to adjust in the moment to capture the gold because you never want to waste those genuine moments.”

Kevin McKnight
Director of photography
“Our course direction was to create a feeling and tone of early ‘70s San Francisco, so we chose to embrace something that felt a little psychedelic in composition. Tim Galvin, our production designer, found a gentleman that created the liquid oil projections for the early rock shows, which we digitally projected onto a large screen for our stage’s backdrop. To mirror the movements of the oil projections, we added modern automated moving lights out within the audience to make the whole room feel like one unified stage. We went bold with expressive colors of magenta, greens and yellows to lyrically transport the viewer into the reality of Aretha’s song. Editorially, this concert becomes emotionally driven as it crosscuts with a 10-year-old Aretha, isolated and alone, grieving her mother’s death. But on this very concert stage, our adult Aretha is anything but alone: she, the band, the crowd, and hopefully our viewing audience share a credit poetically charged moment.

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