Aretha Film Proves She’s Queen of All Music
By ohtadmin | on April 18, 2019
By Loren King, an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications.
It’s rare that the release of a documentary is a major event, but that’s what distinguishes the Aretha Franklin concert film “Amazing Grace.”
Area audiences are fortunate to be able to see the film on a big screen at the Jane Pickens. The electricity in the air at this live, 1972 recording of Franklin’s legendary, Grammy-winning gospel album “Amazing Grace,” still the best-selling live gospel record of all time, is best experienced collectively in a theater.
The reason that the film has generated such interest isn’t just that it is, well, amazing, but that it was famously tied up in litigation since the footage was first shot by director Sydney Pollack and his crew. They used four 16 mm cameras to capture the two-night concert at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The raw footage languished for years because none of the cameramen knew how to sync the audio and video. Once technology made the synchronization possible, producer Alan Elliott spent years editing the thousands of feet of footage shot over those two nights into a coherent film.
Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications.
But for complicated legal and personal reasons, Franklin refused to relinquish the rights. After her death last year, her estate finally did so. All this makes the film more poignant because it’s a celebration of glorious music and a showcase for a singular artist.
Franklin, 29 at the time, was at the height of her fame and vocal power. Recording a gospel album live in a church was a statement as much as it was a coming home. The film isn’t about her decision-making, which would have been interesting. Rather this background is woven through Franklin’s heart-wrenching, soul-stirring performance for the ages. She more than proves herself the Queen of Soul; she earns the title the Queen of All Music.
The church, fittingly, was once a theater. One can see the space high up at the rear where the projection room was and there are chairs instead of pews. It’s relatively small and the intimacy contributes to the electricity among the audience, the band, the Southern California Community Choir that backs up Franklin, and the filmmakers running around and visible in the film.
Pollack, just a year away from directing “The Way We Were,” in his bellbottoms and long sideburns, is often glimpsed with a camera on his shoulder. There is a rawness to the footage, which is sometimes shaky and out of focus, that adds to the immediacy and emotion in the room.
Franklin doesn’t say much during the concert; she leaves the patter to the event’s host, longtime Franklin family friend, the Rev. James Cleveland. Franklin takes a seat at the piano and opens the show with “Wholy Holy,” delivered in her singular powerhouse style. She pulls out all the stops with her rendition of “Amazing Grace,” a performance so transcendent that members of the choir rise from their seats, visibly stunned and moved. The camera catches Cleveland sobbing into his handkerchief.
The order of the songs is different from the album’s, and it’s constructed in a way that builds momentum. On night two, Mick Jagger is spotted in the crowd, along with gospel legend Clara Ward, one of Franklin’s mentors. Cleveland summons Franklin’s father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, to the podium, where he tells the crowd that his daughter, sitting by silently and smiling modestly, never left the church, that it has always been with her. Later, he rises to mop sweat from his daughter’s face as she sings.
Among the memorable songs is a spellbinding medley of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and a stirring “Never Grow Old.”
Watching “Amazing Grace” feels so raw and immediate that it’s hard to believe we’re watching an event that took place nearly 50 years ago. As Franklin connects with and transcends her gospel roots, singing with glorious abandon, one wishes the film was longer than barely 90 minutes. But it’s enough for Franklin to transport us to soaring heights.