Why This Aretha Franklin Documentary Took 46 Years to Make it to Theaters

The documentary was long beset by technical and legal woes, but Franklin’s family members recently gave it their blessing

aretha franklin
January 28, 1972 file photo of Aretha Franklin ASSOCIATED PRESS

Over two stunning nights in 1972, Aretha Franklin recorded a live gospel album at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. A documentary film crew was on hand to capture the performance, regarded as one of Franklin’s finest, but due to a series of technical and legal setbacks, the film was not released. Yesterday, as the Associated Press reports, the documentary finally hit theaters, 46 years after the Queen of Soul put on the show of a lifetime.

Amazing Grace, which borrows its name from the title of Franklin’s live album, premiered at DOC NYC festival, and subsequent week-long screenings are planned for Los Angeles later this month and New York in December. A wide release of the film could happen as early as January, Alan Elliot, one of the film’s producers, tells Brooks Barnes of the New York Times.

The documentary was helmed by the director Sydney Pollack, known for films like The Way We Were and Tootsie. But Pollack made a grave mistake during the shoot: He didn’t use clapper boards, “a crucial tool in matching sound with filmed images in a predigital era,” Barnes explains. As a result, he ended up with 20 hours of footage with sound that wasn’t synced.

Pollack was not able to get the film ready by the time the album Amazing Grace was released, and executives at Warner Brothers, which had financed the production, decided to shelve the project. Decades later, Elliot, who tells Barnes that he became “obsessed” with the footage while working as a music executive in the '80s, bought the neglected reels. He recruited a team to patch the film together, and in 2011, started making plans to release it.

But Franklin, who died in August at the age of 76, did not seem to want the film to be made public. She sued Elliott in 2011 for planning to release the film without her permission, and her lawyers blocked the film from premiering at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals in 2015, according to Variety’s Chris Willman. Elliot and Franklin’s representatives started negotiations to make Franklin a partner in the movie, but discussions fell by the wayside when Franklin became increasingly ill.

The reasons for Franklin’s resistance to releasing the documentary are not entirely clear. She once said that she “loved” the movie, according to Willman, and Amazing Grace documents one of her most iconic performances; the album of the same name remains the best-selling gospel album of all time. “[Franklin’s] resolve for it not being shown is so intense, and I don’t think any us really understand it all the way,” Telluride executive director Julie Huntsinger told Kristopher Tapley of Variety last year.

But the film’s story took a turn in the wake of Franklin’s funeral, when Elliott approached Sabrina Owens, Franklin’s niece and the executor of her estate, about the possibility of reopening talks. Owens invited Elliot to screen the documentary for Franklin’s family. They loved it.

“There was clapping and crying,” Owens tells Barnes of the Times.

With the blessing of Franklin’s family members, fansnow have an opportunity to see a young Aretha sing her heart out during a performance that included an 11-minute rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

“It’s in a very pure environment, very moving and inspirational, and it’s an opportunity for those individuals who had not experienced her in a gospel context to see how diverse her music is,” Owens tells Variety’s Willman. “We are so excited to be a part of this.”

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