Director: Allen Elliot, Sydney Pollack
Runtime: 87 min
About 10 minutes into Amazing Grace, a new documentary film that chronicles Aretha Franklin’s legendary 1972 appearance at LA’s New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, we finally see the Queen of Soul herself — quietly and stoically sitting at the piano preparing to sing the night’s first number. There is almost nothing in her expression that gives way to what those in attendance are about to experience. But as the sounds of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Wholy Holy’ begin to fill the air backed by the inimitable Southern California Community Choir, it becomes apparent that everyone is in for something amazing.
It was January of 1972, Franklin was already a star, with a dozen pop hits to her name. At the time, her label thought it a mistake for a pop star to appear in a church singing hymns. But this minister’s daughter, as she did so many times in her life and career, was on the right side of history and nothing would stop her from singing the songs she’d been singing her whole life.
Amazing Grace is raw and electric, with virtually no editing the film is essentially a mix of the live pre-steady cam feed in all its shaky and often out of focus glory. Exactly halfway through the film as Franklin is bringing ‘Amazing Grace’ in for a landing, sweat pouring from her face, we see bandleader and pianist Rev. James Cleveland with head in hands weeping at the sheer power of the moment. You too may find yourself in a similar posture.
On night two of the recording the audience is noticeably larger and unlike the prior evening includes many more white people (including one Mick Jagger), all of whom presumably heard the buzz from the night before and made a point to attend. But it’s Aretha’s own father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, who makes the grandest entrance from the back of the sanctuary looking as proud as he’s ever been to see his daughter behind the pulpit. It is a sweet moment in a film that’s full of emotional highs.
To see Amazing Grace at all is a bit of a miracle in itself. When Warner Bros. hired Sydney Pollock to produce, they were planning for a release later that year. But when it was discovered the soundtrack wasn’t synched to the film it was shelved by the studio. Many years later, when the technology allowed for it, the film was finally properly synced and the opportunity for a release was imminent. However, Aretha Franklin herself next halted the proceedings — preventing two major film festivals from premiering the newly assembled footage in 2015. It was only upon her death in 2018, when her estate allowed for the film to see the light of day. And what a blessed decision that was.
Unlike most concert documentaries, Amazing Grace thrives not just as an artifact of a particular artist’s career, but as a revelation of American culture itself. Like Reverend Franklin says in the film when he’s invited to speak from the pulpit, what happened in LA that night is “a little hard to describe”. But every soul in that room was transported to a higher place by Franklin’s faith, love of her family and church community, and most importantly the music which transcends all time.
Amazing Grace was featured recently at SXSW and is now playing in theaters nationwide.
— Written by AP