A film that’s perhaps more interesting due to its production troubles than what we are gifted with over the course of 87 minutes – which is still glorious without question – Amazing Grace is an imperfect but nonetheless crucial artefact of a magical moment in musical history.
Over the course of two nights in January of 1972, Aretha Franklin, who had already established herself as an industry power-player with number 1 singles such as “Respect”, “Chain of Fools”, and “Think”, opted to record a live gospel album at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Reverend James Cleveland would lead the charge, and the Southern California Community Choir would provide backing vocals. Warner Bros. would even go so far as to hire filmmaker Sydney Pollack, then coming off the success of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, to capture the moment on film.
The recorded music from the sessions would ultimately culminate on the titular album of the same name, a double-sided LP that would go on to be both Franklin’s highest-selling record of her career and the highest-selling live Gospel music album of all time; it sold in excess of 2 million units in the United States alone.
Though the album went off without so much of a hitch, the same can’t be said for Pollack’s directorial vision, with the Oscar-winning filmmaker omitting the use of clapperboards, which essentially made it near-impossible for the audio and the video to be synched correctly. All the footage shot sat stockpiled for decades, and it wasn’t until Pollack’s passing away in 2008 that producer Alan Elliott retained the film, managing to use modern technology to synchronise the audio and visuals together. Alarmingly though, it wasn’t until Franklin’s death in 2018 that the footage would be released, with her estate making a deal with Elliott – whose credited here as “realising and producing” this film – that it would see the light of day.
Such drama and preventatives over the release of a film would be understandable had the final product been an embarrassment for those involved, but watching Amazing Grace it’s difficult to see why Franklin – who allegedly refused to sign off on its release when it was initially set to premiere in 2015 – wouldn’t want this shared with the masses as it’s a truly magical showcase of her unmatched talent.
Whether or not you’re an enthusiast of gospel music ultimately is of no importance as it’s difficult to not be swept away in the sheer magnitude of Franklin’s vocals. Her dedication, her spirit, her raw emotional outpour with every belted note…it’s an experience beyond words, and it honestly feels like a privilege to us as viewers to be invited as a fly on the wall to one of the greatest concert sets in history.
With no narration, no interviews, and no behind the scenes footage of this moment coming together, Amazing Grace doesn’t quite take advantage of its rich production history, but with nothing else but a microphone and an occasional smile, Franklin proves that’s all she really needs to sell us a ticket.
About Amazing Grace
The never before seen movie featuring Aretha Franklin recording the most successful gospel album of all time, Amazing Grace.
Amazing Grace (G) is screening in Australian theatres from August 29th 2019.