If I have to convince you to go see this documentary chronicling the two Aretha Franklin performances at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles that made up her landmark 1972 gospel album Amazing Grace, then something inside of you hates music and probably joy. The film was never released because of “technical issues,” but really what that meant was that the late Sydney Pollack and his crew forgot to clapper before filming to help synchronize the audio in post-production each time a new mag of film began. But with modern sound and video technology, the original 20 hours of 16mm film and sound recordings was rescued from the vaults and pieced together by music executive Alan Elliott (his exact credit states that he “realized and produced” the film Amazing Grace, which seems about right).
The final product is almost too good to be true, as Franklin is accompanied by her small band and 25-member Southern California Community Choir, so beautifully rehearsed under the direction of a choir director named Alexander Hamilton. Emceeing and playing host was the Rev. James Cleveland, while Franklin’s proud father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, sat in the front row watching his 29-year-old daughter stand behind the pulpit and belt out song after inspirational song. Strangely, when he gets up to speak briefly, she sits behind him looking shy and small as he gives what feels a strangely condescending talk.
I’ve owned the legendary double-album soundtrack for decades, but nothing about listening to it quite prepares you for the visual spectacle of the filmed version. What Pollack and his team captured was a kind of controlled chaos. The lights are up, making the medium-sized room especially hot. People are running around everywhere, both film crew members and those in the congregation. Cleveland encourages those in the audience to respond vocally, while still asking them to respect the filming, so the room feels like its in a constant state of movement, with a fairly demure Franklin front and center. She rarely speaks into the microphone, allowing her hosts to do the actual preaching.
But when she sings, you simply need to let it wash over you. From a golden version of Marvin Gaye’s “Wholly Holy” and spiritualized takes on relatively new songs like “You’ve Got a Friend” and “My Sweet Lord” to standards like “Mary Don’t You Weep,” “How I Got Over,” “What A Friend We have in Jesus,” the barn-burner “Never Grow Old,” and of course, the title track, Franklin lifts the room in ways that feel like you’re watching a revival. Her power is such that you almost don’t care that dignitaries like Mick Jagger snuck in the back of the room on the second night to see just what all the fuss was about—he figured it out pretty quick.
Amazing Grace is not a film you watch at home. You need to see this in a theater with commanding sound, a clear image on screen, and with an audience that isn’t afraid to applaud and maybe shout out an “Amen” a time or twenty. The film may not result in you being born again, but it will stir your soul and show you the late singer in her absolute prime revisiting her gospel roots in the most honest and powerful way imaginable.
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