Way back in January 1972, Aretha Franklin made history when she recorded Amazing Grace. It became Franklin’s biggest-selling album, as well as the top-grossing gospel collection of all time. The two-day recording session was also filmed. However, due to technical issues, the film remained uncompleted for another 38 years. Then, last year it was finally completed by producer Alan Elliott who had made it his mission to finish the film.
Elliott came across the footage in 2007 and soon found out what laid in store for him. The reason why the film had never been completed was because the film’s original director, Sydney Pollack, hadn’t synchronized the sound of the music to the images in the film. A simple clapperboard to show the start and end of one piece of footage would have solved the issue. The result left about 2,000 pieces of film bits without sync points. Sound editor/mixer Serge Perron successfully synchronized the sound with all of the film footage, a long tedious task that is nothing short of a miracle.
Originally the film was set to be released in 2011. However, Franklin sued Elliott for appropriating her likeness without permission, and the release was postponed. It was then scheduled for release in 2016, but Franklin sued again (this time for unknown reasons). It wasn’t until after Franklin’s death in 2018, that her family made an arrangement to release the film. Still, Eliott’s hard work paid off and the end result is a phenomenal documentary which will move you to tears.
Warner Brothers were inspired by the financial success of Mike Wadleigh’s Woodstock. Concert films were all the rage in the early 1970s. The studio enlisted Oscar winner Sydney Pollack to direct multi-camera 16mm footage of the 29-year-old Franklin recording her next album at the New Temple Missionary Baptist church in Los Angeles. As the film unfolds, we see Franklin performing songs like Wholy Holy, and Amazing Grace. Her father Rev CL Franklin attends on the second night and gives a heart-warming speech. And, we see the likes of Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts sitting in the pews, clapping along with the audience.
By having the footage, we can bear witness to the impact that Franklin’s music had on the churchgoers who made up most of the audience, as well as on the Southern California Community Choir, the 30-member group who backed her. There are moments where the entire building is up on its feet clapping and singing along. And, while watching the film, you will be overcome with the urge to join in. When its all over, you will be left on such a high that you will find it hard to come down.
There’s something extremely moving about this film which can’t quite be expressed in words. The best way to describe viewing Amazing Grace is by likening it to an experience in a time travelling machine. We will never have a singer like Aretha Franklin on the same scale. She is a truly unique performer, who doesn’t waste time talking and becomes truly lost in the music.
Aside from the film giving us the chance to see Franklin perform and the footage capturing her energy, the film also gives us a unique insight into how films like this were made in the era. Pollack and his crew are a visible presence in the church. They shoot with 16mm cameras and using a lot of electric cables which scream ‘trip hazard’ in this day and age. The wide use of different camera angles and shots are a bold decision from Pollack. There are an unusual number of shots of Aretha filmed from below, making her appear even more impressive as she takes up most of the frame. Not only is this a time capsule into the world of gospel music in the early 70s, it is also a capsule into the art and craft of New Hollywood filmmaking.
Those who prefer standard documentaries which feature talking heads and charter a subject’s life, will probably be frustrated or put off by this documentary. To call it a documentary is perhaps the wrong term. Amazing Grace goes beyond the usual constraints of the documentary format and as a result we are left with a more intimate portrait of the singer. As they say an image tells a thousand words. To sum up, Amazing Grace is more than just amazing. It’s a soulful, spiritual, spellbounding, and stunning journey. Do try to seek it out on the big screen and with a large audience. You will not regret your decision.