For two days in 1972, at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, recorded her largest selling album, ever. That live performance was captured on film by Sidney Pollack and his crew in "Amazing Grace."
Composer-turned-documentary filmmaker Allen Elliott accessed the little seen footage shot by Sidney Pollack in what is, actually, a recording session rather than a music documentary. Do not get me wrong, "Amazing Grace" is a documentary of that iconic event – the album has sold over two million copies – but, to me, it is really all about her music.
As I watched this well-shot "concert" movie, I found myself, repeatedly, closing my eyes and just listening to Aretha's magnificent voice at her peak. The original production, shot during those two nights in '72, was supposed to be released as a documentary back then. Technical problems forced Pollack to abandon the project, leaving it all locked up in a vault, until Allen Elliott took the reins. Even then, legal problems with Lady Soul kept the film under wraps until after Aretha's death last year. It is a project well worth the wait.
"Amazing Grace" squarely hits its two targets: people, like me, who love Aretha Franklin and her music; and, any fan of gospel music, which is wall to wall in this succinct 90 minute tome. I give it a B+.
By 1971, Aretha Franklin had already released twenty albums. She wanted to do something different next and decided to return to the music of her youth, Gospel, and record it live in LA’s Missionary Baptist Church along with Reverend James Cleveland and his Southern California Choir led by Alexander Hamilton. A young Sydney Pollack filmed the two night event for a documentary, but had to shelve the project because his failure to use a clapboard prevented him from syncing sound. Warner Brothers shelved the project, but in 2008 Pollack gave the footage to Alan Elliott, who, using new technology, has given us the gift of “Amazing Grace.”
I stopped going to church in my teens, but if church were like this I’d be going every Sunday. The power of Lady Soul’s voice produces more shivers, more goosebumps, in ninety minutes than any thriller. Pollack’s footage shows us both the nuts and bolts of sound recording (Reverend Cleveland encourages the audience to ‘sound like 2,000’ and to repeat their ‘Amens’ as enthusiastically on Take 3 as Take 1) and filmmaking (we see cameramen creeping about, the heat from the lights apparent in the sweat streaming down Aretha’s face), but the main attraction here is obvious.
On the first evening, the choir, attired in black shirts and pants adorned with silver sequined vests, proceeds down the aisle, singing as they take their place on the main stage. Then Aretha follows in a sparkly white floor length shift, taking her place at the piano for ‘Holy, Holy.’ Reverend Cleveland takes on piano duties as Aretha moves to the podium for ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus.’ At one point, Elliott cuts between two different performances, the sound transition seamless.
We see shots of the audience, Mick Jagger clapping along at the back of the church. People jump up, shout out and dance in the aisles, one teen in a purple velvet dress showing off some amazing footwork. We wonder how Pollack positioned the cameraperson who got the close-up shot of Cleveland clenching Aretha’s hand behind her back. The film’s centerpiece is ‘Amazing Grace’ itself, Franklin drawing out single syllables to incredible heights.
Night Two sees Aretha in a green and white gown, her Father, Reverend T.L. Franklin getting up to speak about her influences (Miss Clara Ward, who arrived with him, Mahalia Jackson and Cleveland himself). Reverend Alexander Hamilton vigorously conducts both the choir and Aretha’s band as she sings ‘Climbing Higher Mountains’ and ‘Mary Don’t You Weep.’ “Amazing Grace” is set to be the ‘lost film’ phenomenon of 2019. See it.
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