That the Aretha Franklin concert documentary Amazing Grace exists at all is something of a miracle. It was originally filmed by Sydney Pollack to accompany the recording of her live 1972 gospel album of the same name. Franklin’s album would go on to sell two million copies. The film, however, went unseen for 46 years. Pollack failed to use clapper boards during the filming process, making it almost impossible to sync up the sound and the image. Filmmaker Alan Elliott bought the footage back from Warner Brothers in 2007 and fixed it up, but legal troubles with Franklin pushed the release of Amazing Grace further and further back.
Finally, a 90-minute version of Franklin’s two-night show at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church has seen the light of day, and the result, thank goodness, is glorious. Much like another long-embattled music doc, Les Blank’s film about Leon Russell, A Poem is a Naked Person, Amazing Grace provides not only dynamic music, but a detailed glimpse into the time and place in which it was made. The music is moving, Franklin is stunning, and the church is full of characters.
Franklin’s goal with Amazing Grace was to get back to her roots, the gospel music she grew up singing with her father, C.L. Franklin. Helping lead the proceedings is Reverend James Cleveland, who right up front informs the audience that they are there to have a religious experience. This isn’t just a concert. It’s church. The passion of the music and the active participation of the audience and Franklin’s backing choir, truly carries that spirit. Watching the film in a theater, as at Columbia’s Blue Note, where it opened this year’s True/False festival, is an odd experience. Amazing Grace requires involvement, not just passive viewing. You want to stomp your feet, clap your hands, get up and dance and shout “amen” every time Franklin belts out a line.
Fortunately, the folks at Franklin’s two live recordings do plenty of action on the documentary audience’s behalf. They treat the concert like a church service, especially during the second performance. Members of the choir put their hands in the air. Concertgoers dance in the aisles and up to the stage. Gospel legend Clara Ward almost faints during one number, seemingly overcome by the power of the holy spirit via Franklin’s heavenly pipes. It’s much to the film’s credit that Elliott has chosen not to edit around some of the rougher bits in these impassioned moments, like a sweaty hanky hitting a camera lens, or Pollack’s brief concern when an older woman dances her way toward the stage. The musical performance is incredible, but these little moments are what take it from a concert film to something truly special.
To that end, Amazing Grace’s occasional shots of the people who have come to see Franklin perform make a fantastic cross-section of early-70s L.A. With the exception of a surprise appearance by Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, Franklin’s audience is mostly normal folks, and mostly African-American. The church isn’t a gorgeous cathedral, but a normal-looking, surprisingly small room with theater seats and acoustic tile. There’s one woman with her hair in rollers, and another with a fantastic floppy hat who saunters in late without a care in the world. An awkward white guy sits by himself, completely enraptured by the music. There are young people, old people. Franklin’s father even appears, getting up at one point to wipe off his daughter’s face, like a boxing coach.
At the center of it all is Franklin herself, who seems at once completely invested, and coolly removed. She avoids talking to the audience, but pours out emotion through her songs. That incredible voice appears to practically flow from her like a velvet river during the first number, a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy,” and take flight during “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Her performance of “Amazing Grace” itself becomes a musical sermon, directed from the pulpit toward a gobsmacked congregation. The number nearly becomes a relay race as Cleveland, playing piano, has to take a break part of the way through.
With Amazing Grace, we finally have access to long-lost concert film that belongs up there with the very best examples of the form. The performance ranks alongside Stop Making Sense or The Last Waltz in its emotion, command and energy. The involvement of everyday people, getting religion alongside a few notable figures, turn it into a historical document. Seeing it feels like a gift from God, and the fact that it almost never made it to theaters at all practically seems to confirm that sentiment.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10
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