Sunday, September 19, 2021

Once Lost, Now We See: Aretha Franklin in ‘Amazing Grace’

Aretha Franklin in a moment from "Amazing Grace."
Aretha Franklin shares the spirit in a moment from the newly released 1972 documentary “Amazing Grace.”

*If you love and appreciate true American “soul”  and gospel music, not to mention one of the greatest to ever perform it — Aretha Franklin — then there is no better document than the long-hidden film treasure Amazing Grace, just making the rounds of film festivals now.

Originally shot in 1972, Amazing Grace is a film document of the live recording of the late Aretha Franklin‘s seminal 1972 album of the same name, a collection of gospel and gospel-inspired tunes that put on dazzling display its performer’s prodigious vocal talents and went on to sell some 2 million copies and become the best-selling gospel album of all time. The two-night performance was originally shot by the late director Sidney Pollack for a Warner Bros. release, but problems with the footage and disagreement between the studio and its star left it unfinished for 46 years.

Thanks to a long overdue agreement between the Franklin estate and producer Alan Elliott, who was able to piece together Pollack’s footage and complete the gargantuan job of synching the audio to the images, Amazing Grace is finally seeing the light of day. It is being show Nov. 12 at the DOC NYC Festival, has been shown in Los Angeles, and will likely get a theatrical release in early 2019. And thank goodness. Beyond its title being associated with the much beloved gospel hymn, its central performance is just that: Amazing.

Gospel Magic Captured

The action takes place in Los Angeles at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, with backing from a crack band of LA session musicians: Cornell Dupree on guitar, Bernard Purdie on drums, Chuck Rainey on bass, with Kenny Luper on church organ. The Southern California Community Choir, led ably by Choir director Alexander Hamilton, in typically animated choir director form, provide requisite vocal support. Both nights are emceed by noted gospel eminence the Reverend James Cleveland, who alternates with Aretha on piano and lends his powerful vocal on several numbers.

Just 30 when this project was recorded, Aretha appeared to be in full possession of the soulful melodics, harmonics, dynamics, improvisation, and sheer inspirational fervor that have been her trademarks throughout a long career that spanned a broad range of musical styles. Watching Aretha in a church setting, throwing back her head and opening her golden throat, I couldn’t help but imagine that the very angels themselves were being arrested by the glorious sounds that emerge. Whether standing at the podium or seated at the piano to accompany herself, Aretha is composed, confident, and in control. Beautiful in her flowing shifts, glorious afro, and vibrant eye makeup, she is in command of the music, the choir, and even the audience at every moment.

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Aretha Franklin in 1972's "Amazing Grace."
Aretha Franklin captivates at the piano in the newly released documentary “Amazing Grace.”

It seems strange that Aretha herself does not directly address the audience, instead demurring to Rev. Cleveland, who amiably introduces the tunes and instructs the audience to be lively in their responses (encouragement that wasn’t really necessary). We only hear Aretha speak when asking for water, or to clarify the key for a tune. But somehow this distance only adds to her mystique as not only an artist but almost an oracle. Not a second-night appearance by her father, the renowned Rev. C.L. Franklin (who makes a speech of pride in his daughter’s accomplishments), nor a flowery entrance by mink-coated gospel great Clara Ward, nor the enthusiasm of special guests like Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger in the back row, nor the hot lights, nor a steady stream of perspiration puddling her eyeliner can deter Aretha from the preternatural composure and skill with which she delivers beloved classics like “What A Friend we Have in Jesus,” “How I Got Over,” “Precious Memories,” “Mary Don’t You Weep,” and the enduring title anthem “Amazing Grace.”

Soul Stirring

Indeed, by the time Aretha arrives at that seminal title hymn, stretching its melody a cappella and emphasizing the thankful fervor of its lyrics, members of the audience — not to mention members of the backing choir and even the film production crew — are enraptured, many of them visibly moved, some to tears, others seemingly to visitation by the Holy Ghost.

Watching Aretha in her element, the Black Church, in what is universally acknowledged as her greatest recorded performance, the film dares you not to renew your own faith — if not in a higher power, than certainly in the power of music to salve the soul. Amazing Grace is a visual and aural baptism into the wellspring of African American gospel music by one of its most revered practitioners. In simple terms, this often rough-hewn film is nothing short of a blessing.

Janine Coveney is a veteran entertainment journalist and film critic. She is the author of the blog Words On Flicks and host of the podcast The Words on Flicks Show with Janine Coveney. This review also appears on WordsOnFlicks.

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