The Queen of Soul: the Legend of Aretha Franklin (Radio 2)
Aretha deserves a better tribute than this, writes Antonia Quirke
The second part of a documentary about Aretha Franklin (2 August, 10pm) had the strainedly affirmative tones of the show-pen at an obedience school. "Look how she played for presidents and sang opera at half an hour's notice!" "What I love about Aretha is her piano-playing! So underrated! She doesn't get enough credit for it!" "You know, she was unsurpassed!" The impression given was that she was a little unruly and insecure (snarling, biting, even chewing things), but when handled properly was capable of moments of tremendous beauty and happiness. Aretha: a broken-coated Jack Russell watching at the window for the arrival of the afternoon paper, ears sticking straight out at the sides like glider wings.
This may well be her entire career in an epistemological nutshell - who knows, we didn't hear nearly enough biographical detail to confirm. There was brief mention of a husband here, four sons there, but then it was quickly back to the forced declarations. These were occasionally interspersed with soundbites from pop royalty that had been pushed up front as solid radio gold ("We'll be hearing from Elton John and record executive Clive Davis. And George Michael!") but which, when they arrived, sounded mealy-mouthed. Elton and Mick Jagger came out of it particularly badly, like primitive versions of a cashpoint - one that only hands out smelly fivers. Elton: "When she recorded 'Border Song' it was the greatest cover version that I've ever heard. Apart from Kate Bush's 'Rocket Man'." Jagger, ostensibly remembering a lyric he loved: "'Sit down in your car and let's ride . . .' or something. Yeah. She had other records, I think."
Oh, poor Aretha, learning the "heel" command and being taught to plump her lovely rear down at the motion of a finger, while a montage of her worst mid-Seventies songs played underneath, songs with no discernible middle or end which make you grind out your cigarette on the side of the plate and leave the Portuguese café mid-mackerel. And then back to the semi-compliments. "'All the King's Horses', it's kind of . . . dramatic, you know? Wow!" "'Bridge Over Troubled Water'! She didn't write it. But those solos on the Wurlitzer . . ."