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‘Amazing Grace’: Film Review

An Aretha Franklin concert film buried in legal squabbling gets its premiere at the DOC NYC festival months after her death.

At the start of the 1970s, Aretha Franklin was a megastar, having had her Muscle Shoals breakthrough and delivering singles including “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” “Chain of Fools” and Otis Redding’s “Respect.” She decided to go back to her roots as a singer in 1972, recording an album of gospel music — and to do it not in a studio, but in a church with a live crowd (if not exactly a congregation) watching. Warner Bros. Pictures hired Sydney Pollack to direct a film of the two-night session. But the footage never saw release, even after the resulting double-album, Amazing Grace, became a huge hit.

Producer Alan Elliott took up the project after Pollack’s 2008 death, but his efforts to screen a finished film over the years were blocked by Franklin. Planned 2015 screenings at fests in Telluride, Chicago and Toronto were cancelled when Franklin got emergency injunctions, arguing that Elliott hadn’t obtained her permission. Now that the singer has died, the road has evidently cleared. While fans may resent the apparent disrespect of her wishes, few will complain about having the chance to see her in her prime, singing material that was clearly very meaningful to her.

Amazing Grace will not enter the pantheon of concert films — it’s somewhat shapeless as a movie, and gives little sense of emotional insight into the performer. But it does contain moments of bliss: As astonishing as the sound of Franklin’s singing in 1972 remains, watching her do it is even better.

Despite Franklin’s fame at the time, the venue she chose was humble: a small, run-down venue in Los Angeles called the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. On the first of the two nights, whoever was in charge didn’t even fill the room to capacity — seats go unfilled in the back of the hall as gospel star Reverend James Cleveland explains how the filming is going to work and exhorts the crowd to behave as if they were in church. (Read: If you shout “Amen!” and another take is required, shout “Amen!” again.)

Cleveland, who will do the audience-engagement work throughout the sessions, then brings in his Southern California Community Choir, who file into seats behind the pulpit. He introduces a slightly nervous-looking Franklin, whose first number is Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy.”

Here, it’s “whoa-oh-ly holy.” Pollack is not credited as Grace‘s director. Elliott has taken a “realized by” credit and, puzzlingly, left Pollack off the credits list entirely. But we see him from time to time in the background, pointing his cameramen in one direction or the other, and there is no doubt Pollack is the one who had the good sense to gather so many uncluttered close-ups of Franklin — letting us see how a bend of mouth or flexing tongue turned one vowel sound into another.

Franklin remains intently focused as the concert progresses, saying nothing to the eager crowd in between songs. Perhaps she was preoccupied with nailing the performance on tape, presenting these spiritual songs in the best possible light to her many fans in the secular world. Or maybe her reticence was religious — a reluctance, having grown up in the church, to take on what in conservative tradition was a man’s role. Watch her face on night two, when the preacher she grew up with takes his moment in the spotlight.

Reverend “C. L.” Franklin, Aretha’s father, makes a conspicuous entrance on that second night, walking in with fur-bedecked gospel singer Clara Ward after Aretha has warmed up the crowd with “Mary, Don’t You Weep.” (Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, meanwhile, linger almost discreetly in the back of the room.) When Cleveland invites the elder Franklin to address the crowd, he takes his time at the pulpit, inserting pauses between nearly every word and discussing his daughter’s musical influences. He doesn’t sermonize as much as introduce her, but his daughter’s body language is deferential. When attention turns back to her, and she starts into the traditional song “Never Grow Old,” C.L. rises from the audience mid-song to mop the sweat from her face and neck with a handkerchief. Power move or paternal generosity, there’s no denying it was sweaty in that church.

Both the guest appearances and the repertoire make the film’s second section (not all shot on the actual second night, as you can see from clothing in the audience) meandering. Songs stop being songs and become showcases for vocalization or opportunities for the spirit to move audience members to dance. Still, this is never the kind of rave-up we see when fiction films bring us into black churches: It’s an Aretha Franklin concert, albeit one in which Cleveland gets some fine moments, not a showcase for communal call-and-response worship.

Whether the performance is tight or loose, the film sounds great. Opening titles and press materials vaguely cite tech problems with sound synchronization as the reason Amazing Grace was abandoned in the ’70s, and inquiries for clarification drew nothing more. Perhaps Franklin, satisfied with a record that would become a gospel classic, decided it should stand alone. Maybe something shady happened, business-wise, or someone’s feelings got hurt. Whatever the case, you can hardly blame fans of the album for wanting to see it being made.

Producers: Alan Elliott, Joe Boyd, Aretha Franklin, Rob Johnson, Chiemi Karasawa, Sabrina V. Owens, Jerry Wexler, Tirrell D. Whittley, Joseph Woolf
Executive producers: Stefan Nowicki, Joey Carey, Alexandra Johnes
Editor: Jeff Buchanan
Venue: DOC NYC
Sales: Liesl Copeland and Alex Walton, WME

87 minutes

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