Aretha Franklin soars to the heights in ‘Amazing Grace’

The 1972 documentary languished for four decades, but it’s finally taking a well-deserved place in the spotlight.

The Queen of Soul performs gospel music in 'Amazing Grace.'

“Amazing Grace,” featuring Aretha Franklin at the height of her powers, is one of the greatest concert documentaries ever made. It reaches so far into transcendence that watching it becomes an almost ecstatic experience.

And yet the film almost didn’t get released. Some brief background: Shot in 1972 over a period of two days in the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in South Los Angeles, it features Franklin, backed by the Southern California Community Choir and the Rev. James Cleveland, recording a live gospel album before an audience mostly made up of parishioners. The album, “Amazing Grace,” went on to become the most popular gospel album of all time, but the movie, for technical and legal reasons, only lately emerged from limbo. 

Its original director, Sydney Pollack, had scored a big success in 1969 with “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” but was inexperienced as a documentarian and, astoundingly, neglected to use a clapperboard, making it impossible until fairly recently to sync the picture and sound.

When, thanks in large part to the efforts of record executive Alan Elliott, the 87-minute film was finally assembled from 20 hours of raw footage, Franklin, for murky reasons, blocked its release, though she claimed to love the film. Upon her death last year, her heirs enthusiastically gave the go-ahead to release what is by any measure the finest cinematic record of the Queen of Soul that we have. 

Franklin, whose father was the legendary Baptist minister C.L. Franklin, grew up in the church, and the album, coming at a time when she had recorded 11 No. 1 rhythm and blues hits in the previous five years, with five Grammy wins, was an attempt to return to her roots. As the film testifies, she never really left them. Her voice is a balm of sanctity. For the most part she barely moves while she sings, but on her face is a look of rapture. When she sings the words “holy, holy, holy,” she gives each word its own distinct weight. At the beginning of the recording session Cleveland reminds the audience that “this is a church, and we’re here for a religious experience.” His reminder is superfluous.

Franklin, who was also a great pianist, gives the impression in the concert footage of being so spellbound that she barely acknowledges the presence of her audience. She is in thrall to her own God-given inspiration. When she rests between numbers, there’s a stillness to her, as if she has folded inward. And yet even in this setting she remains an exacting artist. We don’t see the rehearsals that preceded the filming, but there’s a moment in the documentary when she suddenly stops and asks for a second take. I heard absolutely nothing wrong with the first take, but I was reminded of Fred Astaire, who reportedly would look at the footage of one of his dance numbers and ask that five frames be trimmed. And he would be right.

C.L. Franklin makes a stentorian appearance in “Amazing Grace,” emphasizing that his daughter, despite her transition to secular music, has never really left the church. In the movie she sings traditional gospel numbers like “Mary Don’t You Weep” and “Precious Lord,” and she imparts to Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” the same impassioned religiosity. What “Amazing Grace” demonstrates, as did George Nierenberg’s marvelous 1983 documentary “Say Amen, Somebody,” is that gospel isn’t some weird subcontinent of the music scene: It is central to most popular music. Besides Franklin, most of the great rock and rhythm and blues artists, from Elvis Presley to James Brown, owe a direct debt to gospel. (Mick Jagger can be spotted in the second night audience in “Amazing Grace” but, mercifully, the cameramen don’t dote on him.)

It’s tempting to view “Amazing Grace” as a time capsule of the ’70s civil rights era, but that designation seems insufficient in the face of such immediacy. I have only one regret. Elliott has described how he reluctantly cut Franklin’s rendition of “God Will Take Care of You” from the film, and surely, with 20 hours of footage to work with, there must have been other sacrifices. If ever a film deserved an expanded director’s cut on DVD, “Amazing Grace” is it. Grade: A (Rated G.)

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