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Released in 1972, Aretha Franklin‘s live album with Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir entitled Amazing Grace took the country by storm selling over two million copies in America alone on its way to double platinum certification. Knowing it was going to be special, Warner Bros. hired a film crew and director Sydney Pollack to record everything for an accompanying documentary much like they did with Woodstock and Michael Wadleigh two years prior. Fresh off his first Oscar nomination and extremely enthusiastic about the project, Pollack unfortunately went into the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church without clapperboards and thus made it impossible to synch audio and video. The technology necessary to bring the footage to fruition finally arrived so Alan Elliott could finish the job decades later.
Even then it wasn’t a sure thing for release since so much time passed to make the film a different beast than originally intended. Franklin herself would sue to keep Amazing Grace on the shelf circa 2011, declaring she didn’t give permission for her likeness to be used in this endeavor. A festival tour was planned when proof via the original contract was unearthed, but an emergency injunction by the singer prevented that as well. So more years went by until Franklin’s 2018 death paved the way for her estate to dismiss the lawsuits and let the world experience what those lucky few in that church saw back in 1971. It’s one thing to listen to the album and another to watch her sing as though the Lord compelled her.
The result is a pretty straightforward run through the two-night event with Cleveland explaining to the audience what’s happening before introducing Franklin to the pulpit. There’s Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy”, a show-stopping rendition of John Newton’s “Amazing Grace”, and many more numbers complemented by the choir (led by conductor Rev. Alexander Hamilton), Aretha’s band, and a guest speaker in her father Rev. C.L. Franklin. She doesn’t speak to the audience except in song with one instance of rest leading to even more singing once Cleveland takes note and tips his microphone her way. He proves the master of ceremonies, pumping up the crowd to not be shy in front of the cameras and to sound like ten times their number so God can be heard on the recordings.
Pollack had multiple cameras for close-ups, audience reaction (Mick Jagger, Clara Ward, and others are seen), and choir cutaways to ensure everyone received his/her time to shine. He also recorded a rehearsal that briefly arrives in part during the first night’s footage before disappearing until the end credits. Why Elliott chose to splice in that scene isn’t made clear—perhaps he just liked the lead-in to the next song—and it isn’t an isolated stylistic incident. He also chooses to use split-screen for a few seconds during night one and then a couple more times much later during night two. I mention this because the maneuvers are so visually jarring and thus beg the question why they weren’t utilized more or why they were at all.
It’s interesting too because Elliott isn’t afraid of keeping blemishes in with many examples of focus adjustment retained for their sense of being live and in-the-moment. I’d argue those imperfections add a lot to the whole by augmenting the raw energy on display with Franklin’s unreal performance. But while the out-of-place rehearsal and rare split-screens do shake you awake a bit from the otherwise consistent and virtually real-time journey, they never distract from the feat itself. There’s simply too much sweat and tears being wiped away with hands and handkerchiefs to let a few visual flourishes overshadow the artistry of what these musicians are bringing to the table. So don’t be surprised if people rise to start dancing in the aisles of your theater like they do on-screen.
While we don’t receive context besides a few lines of text at the beginning or any real technical behind-the-scenes work to document the effort taken to get this show off the ground (a delay due to spilled water is mentioned, but edited out to keep things centered on the music alone), Amazing Grace excels nonetheless purely by serving its role as a time capsule of a moment still revered today. When events like Woodstock or this New Temple Missionary Baptist Church concert occur, they become legendary benchmarks in our musical and cultural history. To be able to relive them in such resplendent glory is thus a gift no matter how simple the concept sounds on paper. This once transient moment now has the permanence to live on forever.
courtesy of Neon