"Amazing Grace" — with Aretha Franklin at her peak — is a dazzling discovery
Documentary about the 1972 recording of Amazing Grace, Aretha Franklin’s classic gospel album. Directed by Sydney Pollack. Now streaming on iTunes, YouTube, Netflix and Amazon Prime. 87 minutes. G
The Rev. C. L. Franklin, Aretha’s preacher father, steps up to the pulpit and speaks of being scolded — in hometown Detroit — by a man who feared the Queen of Soul had forsaken her gospel roots for pop music.
“If you want to know the truth,” the reverend roars, “she has never left the church!”
"Amazing Grace" is the glorious proof, right on the big screen. It’s a marvellous remembrance of the power and glory of Aretha Franklin, who died in 2018.
The long-delayed 1972 documentary takes us into a Los Angeles church filled with friends, family and fans who, over two hot January nights 48 years ago, were elevated to the heights. Directed by Sydney Pollack, it chronicles Franklin and her fellow musicians and testifiers as they record her classic album, also called "Amazing Grace," a live gospel platter that sold like a pop-hits wonder.
The film is all about music, praising the Lord and loving Aretha and her incredible voice, best known for such roof-raisers as “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts clap along with the congregation, as Franklin wails gospel classics and spiritualized pop tunes, backed by savvy showman and family friend the Rev. James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir.
“We want you to give vent to the spirit,” Cleveland tells his audience in the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. “And those of you who are not hip to giving vent to the spirit, then you do the next best thing.” The hip and non-hip duly give vent, and more.
Franklin shyly takes to the modest stage gowned all in white, with matching white earrings, to perform Marvin Gaye’s then-new song “Wholy Holy,” co-written by Cleveland. On her second night, she’s a study in shimmering green.
She sings mostly with her eyes closed, sometimes smiling, sometimes with her head tilted back. She also plays some piano, as on the spiritual staple “Never Grow Old.”
Her face becomes wreathed in perspiration — her dad lovingly wipes away the beads of sweat — as one song follows another, including one that weaves together Aretha’s church and secular influences: “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” with Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.”
A large painting of Jesus Christ with John the Baptist in the Jordan River hangs in the background, reminding us of the church setting.
That the film exists at all is something of a miracle. UCLA music professor Alan Elliott, the film’s producer and saviour, spent years and considerable sums to restore, digitize and assemble footage that Pollack shot cinéma vérité-style but had been unable to complete before his 2008 death, due to issues syncing images and sounds.
Franklin also prevented release during her lifetime, unwilling to sign off on commercial rights or even screenings at festivals, TIFF among them.
The film still isn’t technically perfect — the editing is rough, technical snafus sometimes slow the flow and the camera crew is all too visible — but the sound and emotion power over any ragged spots.
Aretha’s father describes his daughter as a “stone singer” who has “that intangible something that’s hard to describe.”
No descriptions are really necessary. Just watch "Amazing Grace."
(This review was originally published in the Toronto Star on April 11, 2019.)