The miraculous concert documentary “Amazing Grace” acts as a sublime tribute to the great Aretha Franklin.
But the story behind its release is nearly as eventful and drama-filled as the final film. "Amazing Grace," which screens Thursday, June 13, at the Manship Theatre, faced a 46-year battle to finally reach the screen.
The film documents Franklin’s legendary live recording session at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles' Watts neighborhood. The album, also titled "Amazing Grace," was an opportunity for Franklin, who grew up singing in church choir, to get back to her gospel roots.
Performing a set of gospel standards, the singer is backed by the powerhouse Southern California Community Choir and a small band led by choir director Alexander Hamilton, with the congregation’s Reverend James Cleveland pounding the piano and acting as emcee. But while the recording went on to become the best selling gospel album of all time, the footage itself sat in a studio vault gathering dust for nearly 38 years.
Director Sydney Pollack was hired by Warner Bros. to film the session, and with five cameramen, the event was shot over the course of two nights in January 1972. The plan was for the footage to be turned into a television special or released as part of a theatrical double bill with “Super Fly.”
Instead, the young director made a rookie mistake: It seems that in the heat of the moment, Pollack had failed to use a clapboard to begin every shot. Those markers help the editor identify the footage and synchronize the picture and sound at the beginning of each take, and without them the prospect of editing of the film was too daunting a task. And so the film was shelved.
Flash forward to 2008, when modern technology allowed the synchronization to be completed digitally, and an ailing Pollack asked director Alan Elliott to complete the film. The reassembled film was eventually set to debut at the 2011 Telluride Film Festival, but two hours before the screening, word came that Aretha Franklin had filed an injunction halting all public showings, and the film was held up in legal maneuverings for several more years.
Eventually Franklin's estate gave their blessing, and the film finally debuted in November, three months after the legendary singer’s death. It may seem a tad in poor taste to release a film the singer had no wish to be seen — although supposedly it was not because she was unhappy with the footage — but the fact that "Amazing Grace" allows a new generation to appreciate Franklin’s music makes it difficult to be too upset.
It’s genuinely a challenge to find something meaningful to say about the film; it’s simply incredible to see this footage of Franklin, then just 29-years-old.
Shot on 16-millimeter film, the footage has an unpolished look, adding to the raw intimacy of what we’re seeing. Franklin doesn’t banter or address the congregation between songs — it’s enough to let the music speak for itself. And thankfully there’s no talking-head interviews added to this release, so there’s nothing to pull focus away from the incredible, powerhouse voice.
Clad in an array of regal gowns, Franklin works her way through gospel classics like “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy,” a stripped down version of the title track and a medley of “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” that stirs the soul.
"Amazing Grace" is filled with indelible moments like Franklin’s father, the Baptist minister C.L. Franklin, wiping sweat from his daughter’s face as she continues to sing. The audience — which includes Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts — is ecstatic, seemingly awed by the Queen of Soul’s majesty. At one point the Reverend Cleveland sits, holding his head in his hands and begins to sob — and I get it, man.
SCREENS: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 13, at Manship Theatre, 100 Lafayette St. $9.50. (225) 344-0334; manshiptheatre.org
MPAA RATING: Rated G
EXCELLENT (****), GOOD (***), FAIR (**), POOR (*)