Get thee to the movie theater now, gentle reader, to see Aretha Franklin’s concert film Amazing Grace. To see it on the big screen is to be transported back to 1972, to the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles where Franklin recorded her Grammy-winning gospel album. In search of authenticity that a studio recording could never achieve, Franklin brought the studio to church in every sense of the word with the support of the Southern California Community Choir, her band, and Rev. James Cleveland, one of the most renown gospel figures of the time.
Franklin, already a super star with a string of hits including “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” and “Think,” recorded the album over an electrifying two-night session, which was filmed by Sydney Pollack for Warner Bros. Warner Bros was hoping that an Amazing Grace concert film would do for gospel music what Woodstock had done for pop music the year before.
Music documentary is my favorite form of storytelling. There is something about gospel – the harmonies and the passion – that moves me to tears. Every. Single. Time. And watching choir director Alexander Hamilton conduct is a joy.
Prominent civil rights activist Rev. William J. Barber II hopes that viewers understand the turmoil that is the context for the sense of warmth and triumph in the film. “This is in the early 1970s, and if you look at how the people are dressed, you know that this is not long after we lost Dr. King,” he says. ”One of the lines of ‘Amazing Grace’ is ‘Through many dangers, toils and snares I’ve already come. ‘Twas grace that’s brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us on.’ And when Aretha sings that, she’s closing her eyes and singing from not only her physical belly, but the depths of history. It’s almost as though you can sense her voices saying: ‘Through many dangers: slavery. Through many dangers: Jim Crow. Through many dangers: lynchings. Through many dangers: Selma.’ And not just leaving us there, but ending with ‘we’ve already come.’ And in this moment we’re in right now, we need to be reminded of this grace that stands for truth in the midst of lies, the grace to care in the midst of uncaringness, and the grace to understand that although we are seeing some very ugly, narcissistic tendencies to divide, we’ve faced worse before.” – Variety
There’s a messiness to the film. Cameramen are running around in the background, scrambling to get the shot. A sound blanket covers the piano and wires are running everywhere. Editor Jeff Buchanan said, “I wanted to make sure that the story of how the film was shot in 1972…was a part of the story. That way, the film would sort of feel like it was pulled out of a time capsule.” It all serves to put us there, in that moment, in those pews, leaning in to get the best view.
Even the nights have a separate and distinct tone. The first night has a rigid, formal energy. Rev. Cleveland explains to the audience the parameters of the filming as Franklin floats down the aisle in a sparkling white gown.
The second night reveals a barely controlled chaos. The church is crowded. Celebrities are in the audience. The camera crew rushes around constantly fiddling with things and never settle. I wondered at Franklin’s powers of concentration. But she was in the zone and not even in the room.
Spike Lee discusses the film in these terms. “It demonstrates the power of the black church… You know, ‘Mary Don’t You Weep’ (performed by Franklin in the film) is a Negro spiritual. It’s the music that’s in the prayer that kept us going, in the most difficult times we’ve ever faced. That belief in God, and the spirits, and the ancestors … she’s singing about that! She was there sweating about it,” he says with a laugh.”
Technical difficulties and Franklin herself are the reason why this film hasn’t been seen until now.
Director Sidney Pollack’s crew didn’t bring clappers so the footage of four 16mm cameras – thousands of pieces of film- couldn’t be synced with sound. They tried to sync it but without reference points, they gave up after 6 weeks. The unedited footage sat in cans for 40 years.
The New York Times wrote that producer Alan Elliott bought the raw materials in 2008 from Warner Bros and with Pollack’s blessing and then struggled for the next decade against technical and legal challenges to put it together.
Today’s technology made it possible to sync the footage. But then Franklin herself became the roadblock. She didn’t like it, felt that “the film is all about James Cleveland, her father, Clara ward. It was like she [Franklin] was wallpaper,” said bassist Chuck Rainey. Mary Hall, a choir member who was 22 at the time said “This shows how we sang in our churches. And for young people that never got to hear Aretha and see Aretha – to know the quality of how masterful she was in her gift.” –NYTimes
Elliott appealed to Franklin’s family and after her death, a path was cleared to release the film.
These articles provided additional background material, which answered so many questions that I had coming out of the film: