It has been a boon for lost films of late. Technology is finally allowing projects thought impossible to finish to finally come to fruition. Digital editing has resulted in the ability to rescue performance works in particular. Amazing Grace is one such recovery, and the end result of this glorification of gospel music is nothing short of miraculous.
Sydney Pollack had the insight to capture Aretha Franklin as she performed for two nights making an album that would go on to become the most successful gospel recording of all time. His skill lay in capturing this talent as she found herself back in an environment that nurtured her, surrounded by congregants moved by her powerful voice and the stunning performers backing her up.
What Pollack didn’t do, unfortunately, was slate the material correctly, resulting in a mess of unsynchronized elements where multi-track audio and 16mm footage were a jumble with no way of matching. The film sat for four decades in the can, unusable, until composer Alan Elliott started putting the puzzle pieces together. After two years, he’d assembled a final version set to play Telluride, TIFF, and Chicago in the fall of 2015.
And then Aretha killed the film once again.
Another documentary will detail the challenging decisions that Aretha made towards the end of her life, but suffice it to say that she was a complicated person. The day before its premiere, she sued to keep the movie from audiences, leading to a fight that lasted until her passing. Macabrely, the day the iconic performer died, I realized that we’d finally be free to see this long-awaited show.
And what a show it is.
Amazing Grace is one of those rare, sublime moments captured on camera that leaves a viewer feeling as close to spiritual fulfillment as one can from a film. This is sanctified music presented in a way that captures that ephemeral Holy Spirit, a passion from the performance that’s drawn from the divine. The lift is higher, the power greater, all resulting in a higher goal that’s more than a show performed on a stage.
This isn’t to say that you have to be the least bit religious to appreciate the show. The point is what the performer believes, and it’s in Aretha and her collaborators’ hands that the uplift is presented for any to see. Shot with intimacy by Pollack and his crew, we feel drawn into the congregation. Look to the audience (which includes the likes of Mick Jagger) to see the musical ecstasy we’re witnessing. The faces of the choir members are in awe of Aretha and the precision of her instrument.
Her father, C.L. Franklin, makes a thunderous appearance and it’s fascinating to watch how the interaction between daughter and father plays out, particularly given some sordid stories that have since come out concerning their relationship. In front of the crowd, his effusive praise is welcomed. To see quiet, almost subservient glances from the powerhouse Ms. Franklin is another way the film exposes deep truths and speaks to some of the issues she had maintaining control when she had the opportunity to exert it.
A welcome part of the documentary is seeing James Cleveland playing. His voice was always on the recording, but you get an even deeper sense of authenticity of the Los Angeles church’s everyday goings-on when the cameras are away and the mics are packed up. Clara Ward, herself a titan of gospel, gives evidence to the kind of swagger that Aretha’s later years would embody. Chuck Rainey and Bernard Purdie lock the rhythm section down, doing little and saying so much when freed from their regular funkified grooves to lay deep in the pocket, supporting Franklin’s singing while providing deeply respectful accompaniment.
Some may be put off by the lack of contextualization. There are no talking heads to situate the time and place. Only some title cards speak of the film’s troubled production that resulted in such a long gestation. We’re dropped into the pews and are there for the two nights, witness to what transpires in that room. It’s mindboggling to see all the empty chairs for such an iconic moment. In the best way, this film grants us access to that space, making us feel as if we were there with the rest of the congregation swaying in time and clapping on the 2 and 4.
Alan Elliott managed to assemble the film in a fashion that brings us in for something beyond a simple recorded set of shows. Pollack captured magic in that church, and we’re gifted a film that goes beyond classic. It solidifies the immortality of Aretha and her gospel performance. The film immediately enters the pantheon of music docs, not because of its astonishing filmmaking skills, but because it managed to document one of the most integral musical moments of the Twentieth Century. We witness the Queen of Soul make what some felt was a return, but fundamentally was a warm embrace of gospel she never left. We see how her secular songs owed everything to where she was raised. At the same time, those not inclined to look toward the metaphysical are freed to simply revel in the wonderous performance of these songs fueled by belief.
In a word, Amazing Grace is amazing. Its five decades in the making robbed previous generations of what is truly one of the most indelible filmed performances ever captured. This is a film that exudes love, bathes us in sounds of sanctity, and lifts up the spirit in everyone save the most hardened. You’re seeing a genius in her prime remind even the jaded what she’s capable of, and in so doing shows that the divine can in fact take form on Earth. Praise Aretha, and praise that this magnificent film has finally seen the light. Oh, happy day, indeed.