Hidden from view for almost fifty years, “Amazing Grace,” the rough-hewn documentary of Aretha Franklin’s remarkable two night stand at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, is a making-of look at the recording of the singer’s soul-stirring gospel album of the same name.
Director Sydney Pollack shot twenty hours of footage but failed to use clapper boards at the beginning of each song. Later, in the editing room, technicians were unable to synchronize the sound. Decades later producer Alan Elliott’s team spent two years synching sound to image, completing the film two years after Pollack’s death. Franklin then sued Elliott for using her likeness without permission and the film was delayed even further. Now, a full forty-seven years since those legendary shows the film is on the big screen.
It was worth the wait.
Franklin was already the Queen of Soul when she recorded “Amazing Grace.” With eleven consecutive No. 1 songs to her credit, including “Respect”, “Chain of Fools”, “Think”, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”, and “I Say a Little Prayer” she was unassailable on the pop and R&B charts. “Amazing Grace” was to take her back to her roots, singing the music she grew up with as the daughter of minister C. L. Franklin.
The Grammy-winning two-disc LP was a high-water mark in Franklin’s career and became the biggest selling gospel album of all time. Here we see Franklin standing behind the preacher’s podium, sweating, singing some of the most glorious spirituals ever committed to tape. The audience, about two hundred people (plus Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts who visited on one of the nights) are treated to traditional songs like “God Will Take Care of You” and non-traditional mash-ups such as the blend of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and the James Taylor hit “You’ve Got a Friend.” “It doesn’t matter what you sing,” says the show’s MC Reverend James Cleveland, “it matters who you’re singing it to.” With her father in the front row she delivers a version of the title song that makes even the members of her background chorus cry.
The photography in “Amazing Grace” is crude, the editing choppy but the sound is transcendent as Franklin caresses and stretches the notes of these songs to maximum effect. It is a document of a time, a place and most importantly, of a voice that sounds truly heaven sent.