Amazing Grace is a documentary with an unusual and surprising history. Back in 1972, the hugely successful soul singer Aretha Franklin brought producer Jerry Wexler, her backup singers and the legendary Atlantic Records rhythm section to The New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in LA to record an album of gospel music before a live audience. The result, ‘Amazing Grace’, was released to great acclaim and became the top-selling gospel album of all time.
What many don’t know, is that the recording session was documented on film by the director Sydney Pollack. James Signorelli was originally proposed to direct, with the film slated to be shown alongside his blaxploitation classic Superfly, however, Warner Brothers must have felt Pollack had a bigger cachet with cinema-goers so hired him instead, despite his lack of documentary experience. Perhaps this lack of experience went some way to explain an unforgivable error in the film’s production. The camera operators were shooting the performances in short chunks without using clapperboards. This meant it was nigh-on impossible to sync the sound with the visuals. Therefore, the footage got stuck on a shelf in the WB vaults, where it gathered dust for decades.
In 2011, however, producer Alan Elliott got hold of the footage and attempted to sync it and finally make something from it. He was successful, coming up with the film I’m reviewing now after a few years in the edit suite (not literally I imagine). However, the story didn’t end there. The assembled film was slated to be released in 2011 but Franklin sued Elliott for appropriating her likeness without permission, so the premiere never took place. Elliott tried again four years later, but once more Franklin blocked the release. After she died in 2018 though, her family granted permission for the film to be released, so finally, 46 years later, the film saw the light of day. It was released to great acclaim and now it’s getting a home release in the UK. Being a big fan of the ‘Queen of Soul’, I grabbed a copy of the Blu-ray and my thoughts follow.
Pollack’s lack of experience in making concert films shows a little, with a presentation that’s not the slickest I’ve seen for a film of its type. It’s no Last Waltz, that’s for sure. However, Pollack and his crew do a great job of capturing the atmosphere of the performances, which took place over two days.
The title of the film and album is a fitting one because with the gospel music and church setting there’s an intense and passionate religious core to proceedings. The sessions are also emceed by the Reverend Dr. James Cleveland who provides sermon-like links between songs. There’s an incredible sequence in particular when Franklin sings the title track and the choir react wildly to her broken down and extended passages. They truly get captured by ‘the spirit’ and it’s spine-tingling to see, no matter what your religious leanings may be.
Indeed it’s Franklin’s passion that’s most powerful here. She doesn’t speak a word throughout the film (that I remember) but lets her singing do the talking. She’s always been an amazing vocalist, but her soul truly shines in this gospel setting. There are a couple of pop songs in the mix, but they too are given a gospel shine by Franklin and the Southern California Community Choir. The arrangements are tastefully and fairly authentically done too, subtly adding the Atlantic Records rhythm section alongside more traditional choral and piano parts.
Going back to Pollack, one thing he and his crew did capture well are the little details of the performances. There are some nice little intimate moments such as Cleveland holding Franklin’s hand and the pair dabbing their sweaty faces in-between songs – he even does it for her at one point. On top of these we get some lovely shots of the crowd getting swept away in the performances, including a few famous faces such as Mick Jagger as well as gospel legends Clara Ward and Mother Ward of the Ward Family Singers, as well as Franklin’s father, Reverend C.L. Franklin.
We also see some of the recording process, including a false start and plenty of glimpses of camera and sound crew in the background. This adds an authenticity to proceedings, helping you feel like you’re actually there, particularly if you’re able to catch it on a big screen with the volume turned up loud.
So, overall it’s a straight-up, no-nonsense document of a thrillingly impassioned and soulful performance. It’s so imbued with spirit it could almost make an atheist like me a believer (I said almost so don’t expect to see me in church anytime soon). It’s shocking that the film was so close to never being shown and has been shelved for close to half a century. Thank God it finally saw the light of day.
Amazing Grace is out now on Digital Download, Blu-ray and DVD, released by Studiocanal. I saw the Blu-Ray version and it looks a bit soft in places, but this is likely to do with the original 16mm film stock used. The 5.1 mix of the soundtrack I listened to sounds fantastic though – warm and richly textured to allow you to hear the detail of every part of each song.
Sadly there are no special features included, which is a shame as I’d be interested to hear more about the film’s troubled history.