Film Review: Amazing Grace (1972), Dir. Sydney Pollack/Alan Elliott
The title of the film says it all. The hymn, Amazing Grace, is inarguably one of the best-known, best-loved, most ardent expressions of faith in the gospel canon. It is also the title of the multi-platinum, best-selling gospel album of all time as recorded by the 29 year old Aretha Franklin. The 1972 two-concert recording session with the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, California is the locus of this documentary on Aretha Franklin and it is a time capsule long overdue for the opening. Sidney Pollack was tasked by Warner Brothers to film the session which was being recorded live with the choir of the New Temple Missionary Church. This was already a pretty unorthodox recording situation with limited room for artistic license. Not so amazingly, there was no need for anything additional to convey the sublime musicality and heartfelt commitment which had become a hallmark of everything which the young Aretha had done and would continue to do for the rest of her phenomenal musical career.
The fact that the “Queen of Soul” would choose to do this album in this venue makes infinite sense given the fact that her roots are so firmly planted in the traditions of gospel music. Her mother was a highly regarded, very talented gospel singer and her father was a legendary Detroit preacher with a huge following, who encouraged and promoted the young Aretha in her singing career. So, it was a sort of homecoming for her with the Rev. James Cleveland and his Southern California Community Choir as her backup singers, and the church congregation as the audience. It is a fairly stripped-down, no nonsense production with no attempts made to hide the equipment or the technical crew, and stage lights making everyone visibly sweat. The songs are mostly gospel with a little Marvin Gaye and Carol Kane tossed in.
What makes it feel so special is that no one is singing or playing to the camera. Aretha is clearly singing to God along with the rest of the choir, the musicians, and the congregation, when they join in. It feels exactly like the experience of being in a gospel church. You are lifted up and transported. I believe it is as close as you can get without being there. The raw honesty and purity of emotion is almost too much to bear. The 11 minutes of Aretha pouring her heart out in Amazing Grace is simply transfixing and it will either bring you to tears, to your knees, or to Jesus.
The reason for the 46 year delay in releasing this film is almost laughable. Apparently no one thought to employ the clapper which synchronizes each scene with the audio, which made the whole effort unusable at that time. Fortunately, for all of us, new technology has enabled that to be remedied. Alan Elliot, a music producer was able to procure the rights after Sydney Pollack died and has accomplished that task, which was scheduled for release in 2015 in Toronto and Telluride. Mysteriously, Aretha still vetoed the release, for unknown reasons. However after her death her family agreed to share the film with the world.
To honor her activism, the film is being released in conjunction with events connected with her particular causes, like voter suppression, Flint, Michigan water, California wildfires and other issues about which she felt strongly and had long been involved with. And it is now eligible for 2019 Academy Award season. It is a rich experience and one which you owe to yourself. Hallelujah!
You can watch a trailer for the film here