In 1970s Detroit, Aretha Franklin’s masterpiece Amazing Grace, the best-selling gospel album of all time, was the background music of my life for everything from house cleaning to homework. So, I couldn’t have been more thrilled to attend the DOC NYC festival last November and be among the first to see the new film Amazing Grace, which chronicles the two-day, live-recording session at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in January 1972. The film screened in exclusive one-week engagements last month in Los Angeles and New York City, but thankfully, the distributor Neon is making plans for other screening events in 2019.
In 1972, Aretha Franklin was at the top of the music world. She had recorded more than a dozen gold records, more than 20 albums, and had won five Grammys. The world had experienced her amazing voice on classics like “Respect,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Bridge over Troubled Water,” and “Chain of Fools.” She was already known as “The Queen of Soul.”
But early in 1972, she returned to her roots and decided to record a live gospel album, singing the songs she grew up performing in her father’s New Bethel Baptist church in Detroit and in the family parlor since she was a small child.
Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of the internationally acclaimed ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock and curator emerita at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has documented the fundamental role of sacred music in the development of African-American musical expression and popular music. Reagon herself experienced an impulse to explore her musical and cultural roots in order to understand her own background as an artist and scholar.
In 1965, Reagon wrote: "My history was wrapped carefully for me by my fore-parents in the songs of the church, the work fields, and the blues. Ever since this discovery I’ve been trying to find myself, using the first music I’ve ever known as a basic foundation for my search for truth.” This search for self seems evident in the expression of the 29-year-old Franklin in the grainy footage—a lost treasure for 47 years.
The result of Franklin’s return to gospel was legendary at the time. Performing with Rev. James Cleveland, the fabulous choir, Aretha’s studio band (Bernard "Pretty" Purdie on drums, guitarist Cornell Dupree and bassist Chuck Rainey), and in front of a live audience that included Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, who were in Los Angeles finishing an album for the Rolling Stones, the Franklin recording session resulted in a two-album, double platinum, Grammy-winning tour de force.
Also in the church was Academy Award-winning director Sydney Pollack, who was filming the recording session for a documentary to be released by Warner Bros. in conjunction with the album. Pollack and his crew captured the performance with multiple cameras, but made a crucial mistake. They did not use clapperboards before takes to synchronize the picture and sound. This proved costly as editing together the hours of footage with the sound recording was an impossibility at the time, and the project was shelved.
Documentary film guru Thom Powers told me he heard about the footage about ten years ago when former Atlantic A&R staffer Alan Elliott mortgaged his house to purchase the footage from Warner Bros. and take on the film as a passion project.
With new technology, the lost footage was transformed by 2010 into the film Pollack originally intended, but it was still far from finding its way to audiences. The next year, Franklin sued Elliott for using her likeness without her permission. Four years later, the legal troubles seemingly over, Powers, who serves as documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival, invited me up to see the film’s international premiere in 2015. A week before that screening, however, Franklin again sued to block a screening at the Telluride Film Festival over rights issues. Despite the suit not affecting the Toronto festival, Powers pulled the screening and the world had to wait once more.
So, when Powers announced this year following the August death of Aretha Franklin that the film would finally debut at his DOC NYC festival, I was thrilled. I was also guarded, especially since the announcement was so last minute that Amazing Grace wasn’t even included in the festival’s printed program. But Franklin’s family, following her death, had given consent.
I would have been happy with simply a concert film. I had heard the album, and various alternate cuts of songs, so often over the years that I expected and hoped for simply the ability to put images to words, as well as some behind-the-scenes access. One certainly gets that from the film.
Rev. James Cleveland instructs attendees in the church to bring enough noise to make a few hundred sound like a few thousand, and he aptly reminds them that if you say “Amen” on the first take and it has to be done again, to say “Amen” again. He also points out the cameras from Pollack’s team in the room and suggests: “Don't be bashful when the camera comes your way, because you don’t know whether it’s gonna come back . . . so while it comin' your way, get in on it, all right?!”
Amazing Grace is so much more than a concert film or behind-the-scenes look at an iconic recording. When Cleveland reminds the audience in Watts that while they may be in the presence of a huge music star that they are, in fact, in a church, that reminder impacts theater audiences as well. The theater where I sat became a church when the first beams from the projector playing Amazing Grace hit the screen, with Aretha Franklin in the role of preacher and not just singer.
As a kid, I was entranced by the album's driving gospel classics “How I Got Over,” “Old Landmark,” “What A Friend We Have in Jesus,” the masterful compilation of “Precious Lord Take My Hand” and “You’ve Got a Friend,” and Franklin’s version of the Marvin Gaye song, “Wholy Holy.” When my daughter was learning “Amazing Grace” on the violin, I played Aretha’s version for her. She reacted much as I did at her age. “She doesn’t really sing the song,” my daughter said. Franklin didn’t sing it, she preached it. The performance is transcendent.
When the North Carolina pastor and social justice advocate Rev. Dr. William Barber spoke after the screening, he noted Aretha’s ability to carry on the historical tradition in the black church of “worrying the note.” As she elongates and punctuates each line in “Amazing Grace,” the song becomes a sermon, bringing the choir and audience in the church in 1972, as well as the theatre audience watching the film, higher and higher into ecstatic frenzy. Without speaking and through a very familiar song, Franklin delivers a message of hope and resilience as she worries out the lines “through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come.” As Barber put it, “If we’ve already come through it, then you know goodness well . . . that we can go through what’s ahead of us. We can go through it because we know what we’ve already come through.”
The 90 minute film was captivating, it was a witnessing of Aretha Franklin’s musical mastery and the emotion in the audience was palpable, not just because of the years we had to wait for the experience, but because we were living the genius of Aretha and the passion of the tradition she embraced and represented.